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Souq or shuk (part 2) (Saturday, 2019 February 13)

May 20th, 2019

Whew! I started writing this in February but (as of this writing) it’s already May and I still haven’t finished it. I started a few months after the last post because I still had things I wanted to say about our Middle East trip, and quickly wrote up a series of vignettes about our trip, but ran out of steam before I finished. I’m going to try to tie this off, let’s see how far I get.

Somewhere over the Atlantic

We fly on WOW Air, which is a low-cost Icelandic carrier, out of EWR with a layover at Keflavik, which is a pleasant-enough airport. We disembark directly onto the tarmac on a staircase, which is always charming. On the first flight, some woman overhears us talking either about Hebrew or about Israel and strikes up a conversation. She’s Israeli and we try to get as much information about what we’re getting ourselves into as possible. We tell her we’re going to a friend’s wedding and she says it’s good that we get to see an Israeli wedding. We tell her that Yaya told us it would be a small wedding, and she laughs. "To Israelis, a ‘small wedding’ means 200 people." We’re doubtful, but who knows. We learn that although the extremely Orthodox don’t climb the Temple Mount, we’re unlikely to fall into that category, since, after all, we’re flying on a Friday. Great.

We have a beer in Keflavik during our layover. Everything is expensive. Surprisingly, both the moms and Rita are all selected for additional security screenings. We manage to board our flight on time.

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Ben Gurion International Airport (outside Tel Aviv)

Immigration takes forever. We are waiting in line in a giant hall. About a half-hour passes and we make not much progress. Suddenly there’s a loud commotion, including some shouting, and for a second I panic, wondering if I need to duck and cover or what. But no, it’s just an audience reacting to the World Cup games being broadcast on a television in the corner.

We continue to stand in line and after a while, Rita and I are the last two of our group to talk to a surly immigration officer. He wants to know if I’m Jewish, to which I respond "My father", which for me is a shorthand that explains a lot. I wonder if it will mean the same things to him. He wants to know if we’ve arranged meetings with any revolutionary or terrorist organizations. No, of course not. How about Arab or Muslim organizations? Well, we’re going to Wadi Rum to stay in the desert with some Bedouins. We’ll be going with those four women that have already gone through customs. Does that count? He’s nonplussed, to which we try to be friendly and helpful. He flips through our passport pages, looking for anything suspicious. "Here, it says you were in… Doola. Where’s that?" Doola? "Do you mean ‘Douala’? That’s in Cameroon." Rita and I exchange glances. We reach an unspoken agreement not to follow up with "You know where Cameroon is, right? In Africa?", lest we give offense. Eventually he concludes that we’re harmless if ignorant tourists and off we go.

We take the bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I had expected the entire Middle East to be essentially sand dunes and dust storms, and the area on the road to Jerusalem isn’t like this. We drive through hills and valleys filled with scrub. Jerusalem at first glance looks much like a typical European city, although it is mostly shut down for the Sabbath. We pass Ethiopian restaurants and apartment buildings.

We’re staying in the old city, which is much like other old cities, in an Airbnb that bills itself as a "Palestinian home". Really it’s something like a basement, but there’s hot water and it’s hot outside, so having a clammy dungeon to come back to is not so bad.

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Ramallah

I really wanted to visit Ramallah, the "de-facto capital of the West Bank", and out of fear that some kind of civil unrest could spring up at any time, we decide to head there first.

I really like Ramallah. It feels friendly and inexpensive in a way that is familiar. Yaya later comments that the West Bank provokes in her a feeling not dissimilar to being in Cameroon. I’m not sure what exactly provokes this feeling, but I agree with her. Maybe it’s because people walk around selling stuff. For example, people dressed in what I assume is traditional Palestinian dress pour some beverage (tea? carob juice?) for passersby. (I thought I took a picture of one, but I don’t seem to have it any more, so here’s one from this person’s blog.)

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It could also be the markets. Some stalls are built in concrete structures that reminded me distinctly of markets in some Cameroonian city (although I can’t quite put my finger on which one). Others are under roofs but felt similar to an open-air market that you might find in village (pictured in the last post).

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More interesting merchants in Ramallah.

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Eating arab gum ice cream in Ramallah.

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The outskirts of Ramallah on the bus ride back.

Jerusalem

One the list of things I absolutely have to do on this trip is going to the Western Wall. I have been given a small note by my father to try to put into the cracks between the bricks and I don’t want to miss my chance. We head there the next day, first thing in the morning to beat the crowds. Personally, I find it more interesting from an archaeological and sociological perspective than for any religious one. There are so many people, many working through their individual rituals, including a tour group from Nigeria (who we see throughout the day around Jerusalem).

I pick my way through the crowds of mostly Orthodox Jews with sprinkling of a few others and place my father’s note in a space among other notes. Everywhere around me, others are praying sincerely, and I feel I ought to try, as long as I’m there anyhow, although (as I have admitted before) I don’t really have a clear idea of how. I start by looking within myself, trying to find any sensation of divine presence. I don’t find one, even with my eyes closed.

I look around again, trying to see what everyone else is doing, maybe hoping for a bit of advice from a stranger. Some are some distance away, singing and chanting and reading from books. Others are close-in to the shade of the wall, as though in a conversation with an interlocutor. I try touching the stones of the wall, and with my hand there, pray again. It’s hard to shake the feeling that I’m praying to a wall. I rifle mentally through the things in my life that I’m unhappy with — there aren’t that many — and politely request that they be fixed. Eventually I do feel a sort of calm or peace come over me, perhaps as a response, but it’s hard to tell if it’s the divine presence and not just, say, the wall itself, answering with the everyday presence that a cool stone wall has. I turn to leave, passing one other gentleman who had found a peace that was indistinguishable from having fallen asleep in the hot sun.

From there we go to the Temple Mount. Immediately upon setting foot on the area, I feel a holiness and sacredity that had been missing from the Wall, though in hindsight maybe that was just because there were no hysterical Orthodox carrying on. I think, then, about how the Jewish tradition was that some aspect of divine presence is still on-site. Maybe so, but it’s also simply a wide, quiet plaza, with not too many visitors and beautiful architecture, and it feels easy to mistake one for the other. We spend some time here taking pictures. The Dome of the Rock is stunning. In terms of the beauty of their sacred sites, the Muslims are really thrashing the Jews.

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The plaza in front of the Western Wall/some of the men’s side.

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The Western Wall (women’s side).

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The plaza at the top of the mount.

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The Dome of the Rock.

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We didn’t try "The Bible Experience" virtual reality attraction.

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Overlooking Jerusalem from the south side of the Old City.

Haifa

We travel north somewhat to Haifa. Haifa is the site of Israel’s first underground transit system (the Haifa funicular) and we are determined to see it. Unfortunately, we discover when we get there that it’s closed down. There was a fire and it’s still being repaired. Other than that, there’s not a lot going on in Haifa — if Tel Aviv is Manhattan, Haifa is Jersey City or maybe Newark. (I’m not sure what Jerusalem corresponds to in this analogy. Maybe a reverse Atlantic City.) Beyond that, our plan is to use our location in Haifa as a jumping-off point to see the Galilee. In hindsight, maybe we oughtn’t have bothered. When we told Yaya of this part of our plan, she asked our traveling companions, "Are you Christian?", the implication being that if you weren’t, you could probably find a better use for your time in the Holy Land.

On the day we arrive, we are too late to go much of anywhere, so we wander the streets. We see the outside of the Bahá’í gardens, which are impressive; a bit of industrial waterfront; eventually we wander our way over to a bit of beach. We sit at a table outside a beachfront refreshments stand; adjacent, there is another table, at which are seated some salty-looking Israelis drinking and smoking. Eventually one of them makes eye contact with me and says something in Hebrew. I indicate that I don’t understand Hebrew and he becomes embarrassed, maybe even saying "Sorry" in English while gesticulating something like an apology. He and his friends have a laugh. He points out one of his friends to me and says something else in Hebrew that I don’t understand, to which the friend replies in English "Don’t believe anything he says. He’s drunk!"

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The view from our balcony.

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These "Danger of Death!" signs around Haifa amused the ladies.

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Bahá’í gardens.

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Sunset on the beach.

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A playground on the beach.

The next day we go to Tiberias, more or less at random but because it’s adjacent to the Sea itself. It’s underwhelming. Everything is hot and bright, and the sea is hazy with evaporation. We go to the national park, where we briefly dip our feet in the hot springs. Within the park is also a reconstructed synagogue dating from the 4th century CE; it has a mosaic floor depicting a mix of Jewish symbols, Greek writing, and the signs of the Zodiac. It’s a reminder of how deeply intertangled the overlapping histories of religion are in the Holy Land, which, as you probably already realize, is a major theme of the trip.

We spend the rest of the afternoon across the street in a "resort" (kind of like a pool/gym), swimming and hanging out, before heading back.

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Mosaic floor.

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Sea of Galilee. It looks beautiful here rather than humid and miserable.

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Al Amari Mosque, now disused and in need of repair, in what I think used to be the town square.

Tel Aviv

We see a little bit of Tel Aviv, in particular the beaches, which are populated with the most beautiful people by far we see on the trip. We see a little bit of the rest of the city, walking through another open-air market, but mostly we don’t have a lot of time because we need to get ready for the wedding.

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I ate a sandwich out of a bus station vending machine between buses.

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A "frame" set up by some tourism authority to inspire you to take a photo of the scenic beauty. Hashtag trying too hard.

And what a wedding it is, dear reader. Just as the woman predicted on the plane, there are 200 attendees. There is also an open bar, of which liberal use will be made later. There are five or six "stations" each serving a different food. One is serving falafel and hummus — by this point in the trip I have gotten so used to the "xh" sound in "xhummus" that when I ask about the bread, I mistakenly call it "xhole wheat". Embarrassing!

The ceremony is beautiful. Most of the speakers graciously speak in English, and generally everyone appears happy to converse in English (Rita and I never manage more than a few words of Hebrew). The remarks are wonderful — I’ve forgotten most of them, but I remember Amit’s brother, who addressed Yaya’s family regarding their joy at Amit being newly added to their family: "I get it. He’s a hot doctor." Similarly, to Yaya, how happy that he was that she was joining theirs: "Not only are you beautiful and intelligent, but you have the ability to Shut. Amit. Down. Which is much appreciated."

After the ceremony, a screen is set up and a video is played. It’s a "life and times of Amit" that have been put together by some of Amit’s friends as well as his family. It shows Amit’s mom talking on the phone (this part is subtitled in English) about her son and how proud she is that he’s decided in high school to major in Arabic but that she’s uncertain that the school is really set up for it. Later it shows Amit (depicted by a friend wearing a printed photo of Amit as a mask) deciding what unit of the armed forces to join. Each unit he considers is portrayed as a stereotype — the marines are all doing push-ups and bicep curls, the infantry are all marching and standing at attention, but finally when Amit considers the signals unit (i.e. the one he really joined), it’s portrayed as a bunch of flamboyantly dressed weirdos. In the next scene, Amit is portrayed meeting Yaya (portrayed again by someone wearing a printout of Yaya’s face) — she’s throwing a frisbee (a shout-out to her ultimate frisbee career). Suddenly the manner of the video changes to a nature documentary, with a British voiceover talking through Amit’s prowling manner as he attempts to close in on his prey, with silence being his only chance. Suddenly, he passes gas, startling her. She turns to look at him. "Uhh… ni hao ma?" he tries. She replies, "I’m from Detroit, motherfucker!"

After the video, there is some commotion as a clearing is produced. Out of nowhere, a skit is performed — all of Amit’s friends have put together a show in addition to the video! The skit is in Hebrew and I can’t follow all of it, but it largely takes the form of Amit interviewing with someone about his time in the armed forces. Someone playing Amit sits opposite a woman who is asking him questions. Occasionally other friends will jump in behind/around him to enact "flashbacks". For example, one question that transcended the language barrier was about Amit’s drinking habits: does he drink too much? No, he replies, as one of his friends crawls along the floor and passes out in front of him. Eventually the skit ends on the question: who is his favorite Johnny? "Depp," replies Amit. "Depp?" "Depp." And with that…

… the dancing begins. There is a lot of dancing. And drinking. At one point a table is lifted by several partygoers and the newlyweds are hoisted onto it to dance atop it. Or maybe that was after they were lifted into the air and crowdsurfed over to the open bar, whereupon the bartenders poured alcohol directly into their mouths. I seem to recall the parents also getting lifted onto the table, or maybe it was only Yaya’s father. It is, to put it mildly, a wild party. Us Americans stick together. Yaya’s father and I were already fast friends at the first wedding when he bought a bottle of moutai and I drank most of it. The rest of her family is also awesome. The drinking and dancing continue. At some point the party clears out and we board a bus to go back to Tel Aviv. Someone throws up on the bus. However, the contents of my stomach remain where they are. Somehow we stagger back to the hostel and pass out, and not a moment too soon because the next day we are making the overland crossing to Jordan and have to get moving as early as possible.

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A video of the dancing.

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It’s really blurry, but you can see some of the printouts on sticks in the background to serve as masks.

Yitzhak Rabin Border Crossing

Getting moving as early as possible turns out to be difficult because of the aftereffects of the party. Somehow we manage to get to the bus station a bit earlier than we need for the 12 o’clock bus. We’re doing the overland crossing both for the practical reason that there are no direct flights from Israel to Jordan or Egypt and also because philosophically it should be more interesting. We have committed to being at Wadi Rum in time for dinner but that seems increasingly difficult. We are going to take a bus towards Eilat but stop before entering the city and instead go to the border crossing. Shirley (the cool mom) is coming back from the bathroom when the bus pulls in to the bus station. Julie (the less cool mom) suddenly realizes that she, too, would like to go to the bathroom, and hurries off to do that while we’re loading our luggage onto the bus. A few minutes later she comes back — the bathrooms are coin-operated and she doesn’t have the right coin. JC gives her the coins and off she goes again. We’re getting pretty close to the scheduled departure time now… The driver starts the motor. "Can you wait for JC’s mom?" we ask. "No — I’m leaving now," he replies. "Shit," says JC. In the heat of the moment, we make a foolish decision: we decide to split up. JC removes her luggage and her mom’s from the bus. They’ll meet us there somehow. Of course, JC hasn’t read the documents I have meticulously prepared and doesn’t know where exactly to go. I tell her to tell the driver "Yitzhak Rabin", but by the way she repeats it back to me I know there’s no chance she’ll get it. But no problem! There’s wifi on the bus. I’ll text her what she needs to know and when she boards the next bus (an hour later…) she’ll be able to get the instructions and behave accordingly. So thinking, the bus leaves.

I’m still hung over so I nap. When I wake up, I haven’t received any response from JC. This is bad. More time passes as we drive through the desert and I’m becoming increasingly anxious. I decide that we will have to use a bit of finesse: we will have to wait for them at the bus stop, flag down every bus they could conceivably be on, and then board just to look for them. This feels risky in a number of ways — they could not have boarded the bus at all, they could have boarded a different bus than they were supposed to, the bus could take a detour for any of a number of reasons — but we’re supposed to be at Wadi Rum that night and I don’t have a better idea.

We descend at the correct stop and unload all our luggage. We are now in the desert, the Negev just north of Eilat. It is warmer than one would like. Cabs and vans come and go, probably driving people from Eilat back to the border crossing. We are rationing our water, just in case. Buses with other numbers go by, but our eagle-eyed team pays them no mind because there is only one number they could have taken. The bus stop lends a little shelter against the sun, but not much.

Eventually the whole hour goes by and we spot the bus in question. We flag it down and lo and behold, JC and her mom are there, completely oblivious! I signal to them and they get off and retrieve their luggage. "We thought we were going to take this bus to the end of the line," JC tells me. It doesn’t matter. We’re going to be super late to Wadi Rum. We start walking to the border crossing; unfortunately there are no more cabs to be had on this side of the border. The border crossing is essentially pleasant — the Israeli side is crisp, efficient, almost European; the Jordanian side is casual, almost disorganized. We somehow make it through OK and find two taxis. Wonder of wonders, they agree to reasonable prices to take us to Wadi Rum. We eventually make it — we are the last ones to arrive, and they have been holding back dinner for us. Everyone is reasonably good-spirited about it.

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Border crossing.

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Zarb being extracted from the sands.

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Successful zarb.

Wadi Rum

We stay with Rum Stars, which is where Jenny stayed on her trip to Jordan. Being in Wadi Rum in the summer has its advantages — the camp is almost empty, and it’s warm enough even in the evenings that you can sleep outdoors. In Cameroon I wouldn’t, because of the risk of mosquitoes, but there doesn’t seem to be enough standing water for them here. Besides, the Bedouins who run the camp do it all the time. Wadi Rum is vast and dry and empty, and at night you can see stars upon stars. (It looks like the recent XKCD. We assume that the lighter patches we see are the Milky Way, but honestly we have no idea.)

We spend a pleasant day and a half here. We ride camels. After you mount them, they lurch terrifyingly up on their hind legs before standing up on their front legs. It is startling and not entirely pleasant. The ride is itself uncomfortable, and some of our camels seem interested in flirting/picking fights with the other camels. Afterwards we drive around a lot and look at rocks and go hiking, with plenty of stops at different Bedouin tents where we are offered tea and the opportunity to purchase tourist goods. We pay prices that we later learn are dramatically inflated, but we are tourists so what do you expect.

I have two beers that I had in my bag when we left Israel. I am somewhat uncomfortable about carrying them due to the strained diplomatic relationship between Israel and Jordan, but equally unsure about the protocol about drinking them in a Muslim country. I share them with an American woman who is working for Rum Stars. She seems unbelievably grateful — it is the first beer she has had in months.

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Camel spider in the camp. Harmless but enormous.

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Camels at sunrise.

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The desert.

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A certain amount of climbing and scrabbling occurred, which led to some great shots.

Wadi Musa/Petra

We have arranged travel with the same taxi drivers who brought us from the border crossing. They stop at a gas station on the way and buy us soft drinks. It’s a nice gesture that makes us feel a bit welcome. Middle Eastern hospitality is definitely a thing.

Wadi Musa is basically a nothing town that exists only to house people visiting Petra. The site of Petra has been slightly developed, with turnstiles and pamphlets. The downside is that there are no shortage of vendors trying to sell you more souvenirs as well as trying to get you to ride their horses, donkeys, or camels. Received wisdom on this is to not take any animals; their hooves aren’t good for Petra and the humans don’t treat the animals well. Because it is still the low season, there are much fewer tourists and it feels like everyone is just a little more desperate, and it’s incessant and more than a little exhausting.

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I bought one of these bottle openers.

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One thing that stands out is how the vendors call you. In Cameroon, a vendor in the market may try to get your attention by shouting "Oh, le blanc, vient acheter quelque chose, non?" ("Oh, white guy, come buy something, no?"). In Cameroon, it isn’t considered rude, but to an American’s ears it can be quite grating and aggressive. The Jordanians, by contrast, will address you with: "Welcome!", followed perhaps by a suggestion that it will cost you nothing to look at their wares. It goes a lot further towards engendering goodwill. Of course, the haggling is just as bloodthirsty as in Cameroon, and as the tourist you are still just as much at a disadvantage, but the experience is more pleasant. Overall, the impression you get is that a Jordanian may try to cheat you, but he will never try to rob you.

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Petra itself is remarkable. "A rose-red city half as old as time" indeed. Just find some pictures online if you don’t believe me. The pictures are in my opinion every bit as good as going yourself, or maybe better. The color of the stone doesn’t stand out until you are no longer surrounded by it. It’s also fascinating as a ruin of a city, the capital city of the Nabateans, about which we seem to still know very little. In particular, signboards and blurbs indicate that the functions of those rock-cut facade structures is yet unknown. (Or maybe it’s just that I know very little. Wikipedia tells me that the Treasury, the best-known part of Petra, is actually a mausoleum.) The Monastery, some 800 steps up a hill, remains disputed, with it serving perhaps as a family tomb or perhaps a meeting place for members of a cult. And (again, typically), the place just oozes a long and complicated history. Some structures (including the Monastery, thus its name) were clearly repurposed at one time or another as Christian churches. The Colonnaded Street tell of its time as a Roman colony. Even the name Petra is itself Greek, named for the stone the city was carved out of. (Wadi Musa, the name of the nearest town to Petra, translates as "the Valley of Moses", since in the Muslim tradition, it’s where Moses struck a rock to produce a spring.)

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It’s quite a spread-out site — UNESCO Heritage or no, I think it could do with a bit of funicular — and in the summer heat, quite exhausting to walk around. Did I mention how hot it is? At the top of the hill with the Monastery, there’s a little cafe with a few stray cats. (JC and Rita have dozens of pictures of stray cats all over the Levant, and indeed any animal of any kind that we saw anywhere on our trip.) It’s so hot that the stray cats would come up and beg — not for food, but for water, which we would pour into the little bottle caps of our water bottles, from which they would drink gratefully.

I’d encourage you to know what you want to see ahead of time. There’s no shortage of sights and once you get off the beaten path it’s easy to find yourself trekking down some underdefined path towards a sight that, while interesting, was perhaps not the best use of your valuable time in Jordan. On the other hand, Little Petra, unless for some reason you have an excess of time in Wadi Musa and literally nothing else to do, I’d recommend skipping. It’s not as developed as Petra itself, and suffers more from the pushy vendors as a result. It’s essentially just one long alley, with structures that are similar in style, although perhaps it’s a tiny bit easier to scramble up and down the rock and imagine how this alley may have functioned thousands of years ago.

Dead Sea / Madaba

We take our stuff to Amman via the adventure related in the last post and we hire the same driver to take us to the Dead Sea the following day. From reading Jenny’s travel report I know that it will be wise to also stop in Madaba and possibly somewhere else such as Mount Nebo. JC’s mom ensures we get a late start.

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We stop at Madaba first. It’s a cute little town. We wander around the "archaelogical park" looking at the mosaics. Madaba has mosaics galore — the archaelogical park contains mosaics that were recovered from private residences, which had re-used the mosaics that had been built on top of previous earlier mosaics, as flooring. Some of the mosaics on display in walls had been defaced in antiquity for depicting living things, which is of course against Islamic practice. We also stop in at the Orthodox Basilica of St. George, which is marvelous. Not only does it have the famous map of the Holy Land, but there are dozens of other mosaics on the walls.

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This one is my favorite. The combination of the halo and the Arabic are another reminder of the rich, confusing history of this part of the world.

If, like me, you are American, the Dead Sea probably has a mystique, with its mud ascribed powerful healing and beautifying properties. You may also consider it a "fun" place to go, where you can float on the water even without being able to swim. And when we actually enter the water, we do begin bobbing like corks, even with all our limbs out of the water. However, the idea of fun is quickly qualified by signs warning us not to enter the water face down, because we can be borne off our feet and unable to get our faces out of the water and quickly drown. Not only that, the whole valley is blanketed with a dense haze even thicker than the one over the Sea of Galilee — as Earth’s lowest point on land, it’s very hot, and the distance between where the infrastructure ends and the sea starts speaks to a lot of evaporation. (Indeed, the Dead Sea is dropping by about 1m per year.)

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A pleasant suggestion along the shore of the Dead Sea.

The water is so salty that you can’t stay in it too long. It sets every opening on your body to burning. JC didn’t think things through and regrets shaving the night before. Jenny Wang described it in her blog post as "caustic", which is apt. Another thing we didn’t anticipate is the smell. Rita describes it as being like burnt tires. It’s enough to remind you why this place is called "the Dead Sea", not just "the Really Salty Sea at the Bottom of a Valley". Nothing can live here. It’s hard to imagine wanting to try.

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It looks better than it smells.

We try to leave the mud on us for as long as we can manage but it’s rough going. We try to wash as much off as we can, but the smell follows us in the car back to Amman. [Editor’s note: while doing research for this piece, I discovered that "Currently, only sewage and effluent from fish ponds run in the river’s channel." I wonder if that’s the source of the smell?]

Amman

We spend a couple days in Amman. We stay at the Jordan Tower Hotel, which is where Jenny Wang reported staying, and find that not only are the price and the location are unbeatable, but the staff is quite friendly, even forbearing of Julie. (One morning, Julie comes down to the lobby with a scarf over her head, perhaps to protect from the sun. She jokingly tells the man behind the desk, "I’m a Muslim today!" The rest of us are of course horrified by the reductive and regressive attitude and rush to explain that we’re sorry, she doesn’t know better, etc. but what’s worse is that with her accent, it sounds like she’s saying she’s a "mushroom", so before we can even apologize we have to translate what she’s saying to the baffled gentleman, who (luckily) finds the whole thing amusing and even asks Julie on future mornings if she is a mushroom today.)

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We are also quite close to Pizza Roma Cafe/Amman Pasha Hotel, which has a lot of things going for it: a rooftop terrace overlooking the Roman theater; waiters who will bring you beer for decent-ish prices (considering); a collection of animals, because apparently the owner likes to take in strays. I think http://www.ammanpashahotel.com/pizza-roma-cafe/ their website does a pretty good job selling the story.

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Clearly some previous visitors were French.

Although beer is not 100% readily available, we are quick to discover a replacement beverage in the form of sugar cane juice, which is available from stalls everywhere for quite cheap (less than one dinar, usually). A pleasant diversion, and one that we embrace for the rest of our trip.

Of course we see the Roman theater, which is interesting enough. We also see the Citadel, which has its own dramatic Roman ruins. Amman is a city of seven hills, and the Citadel is on top of one of them. The afternoon prayer time arrives while we are there, and the call unwinds from several mosques all around the city and echo throughout, mixing into an unearthly although beautiful sound, the sound of a city muttering to itself. I try to record it with my phone and don’t get great quality, but if you turn your volume up, perhaps you will get the idea.

Uploaded: SoundRecord-2018-07-11-12-42-57.wav (RIFF (little-endian) data, WAVE audio, Microsoft PCM, 16 bit, mono 44100 Hz, 8.0 MiB)

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Julie is bored to tears by the Citadel and on subsequent days, JC cuts her loose with some money and instructions not to get into trouble. After that day, when we find her back at the hotel, she is visibly brimming with excitement. She apparently took a cab to the posh part of town and found, wonder of wonders, a Burger King. "Ice cream is only 79 cents!" she exclaims.

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A perfume shop. This was lots of fun!

FDR and her mom have to cut their trip short after Jordan, but Rita and I will be continuing with JC and her mom to Egypt. We take a taxi to Queen Alia International. We are stopped at a checkpoint. After a spirited discussion with the soldiers there, the taxi driver turns to me. "China, right?" What? "You’re going to China?" No, we’re going to Egypt. The taxi driver relays this information to the soldiers, and they wave us through.

Aswan

We land in Aswan, which is a small regional airport, comparable in nature to the Yaoundé airport. We have no Egyptian pounds and it is not clear how we are going to get any before taking a taxi to our hotel. We spend a while waiting by the baggage carousel for our suitcases. They don’t arrive. I’m on high alert, feeling quite vulnerable without local currency or our suitcases. JC asks politely of a white-uniformed policeman if there are more suitcases. While I am distracted, he requests JC and Rita come with him. I eventually notice that they’ve gone and start to get anxious, but before I can get very far, they are back with our suitcases. (Apparently the suitcases had gotten flagged for some random screening or whatever.) We ask if there is an ATM, and the policeman instructs me and me alone to follow him. We walk through the airport to an ATM and I am able to extract a sufficiency of money. I’m off balance — is this a bribery situation? Some kind of airport security thing? But before I can figure out what’s going on, they politely escort us out the front door.

We easily procure a taxi. "Welcome to Alaska," the driver says, referring to the oppressive arid heat. We haggle a bit just for the practice but the taxi drivers are firm in their price and honestly we don’t really care that much, because the taxi fare is still cheaper than the price that the hostel quoted us to meet us in a shuttle. The drive is pleasant enough; we see a little bit of the village and before we know it, we are at the place. We are the only guests.

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The host is a pleasant man of Nubian heritage who has traveled relatively widely. He is happy to arrange "excursions", in particular he can take us to the Nubian village, where we sightsee and hold a crocodile, and he can arrange for a Nubian dinner prepared by Nubians. Not only that, he says, but one thing he sometimes likes to do in the summer is to take people down by the first cataract, where there’s something of a little beach, and you can take a little swim in the Nile and cool down. JC is immediately excited about this. My initial reaction, like any good RPCV, is to remember that back in Cameroon, we had been warned not to swim in any fresh water for fear of getting schistosomiasis. But I catch myself before I say anything — certainly this is not like Cameroon, and our host wouldn’t have suggested it if it weren’t safe, right?

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From a felucca ride.

The hostel doesn’t have Internet access the first night, which is a bit of a hardship. "Sorry about that!" he says, "But it’s a little bit Africa here, you know?" I do know. Still, we have enough information to go out and see a little bit of the town, and especially so we can book travel to Abu Simbel.

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We go to Philae Temple, which is inconvenient and only accessible via extortionate boat people. All Egyptian monuments are beset with intrusive Egyptian "hosts" who try to show you things you can already see, prevent you from taking pictures, permit you to take pictures, take pictures with you, etc. in exchange for a little money. It makes the experience quite a bit less pleasant. Still, Philae Temple is beautiful and the heiroglyphics are intricate.

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Still at Philae Temple. This cross "graffito" is a relic of when Philae Temple was repurposed much later as a Christian church.

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I am startled to find that unlike e.g. Cameroon, where by dark everyone is inside for the night, and despite my preconceptions of the Middle East as strict and repressive, in Aswan we find that people are still out and about, the souq is still active, etc. fairly late, with a decent gender mix, at least until 10 or 11. This pattern holds true in all the Egyptian cities we visit. Perhaps it’s because the height of the day is unbearably hot.

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More refreshing sugar cane juice!

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Aswan at night.

We also see Abu Simbel, which (while impressive) is an enormous pain in the ass to get to and may not be worth it. (If you do go, I echo the recommendations of the editors on Wikivoyage who encourage you to read up about the site before you get there.)

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Obligatory Abu Simbel photo.

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We got to visit the traditional Nubian village where they still raise crocodiles in the traditional manner. They are heavy!

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Camels rushing through the Nubian village.

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This is the dinner arranged by our host. I guess this is Nubian food! (It was delicious, whatever it was.)

The Internet isn’t available on the second night either, but after coming back from our splash in the Nile, we do finally get some access. Just out of curiosity, I look up schistosomiasis; Wikipedia helpfully informs me that "Schistosomiasis is endemic in Egypt, exacerbated by the country’s dam and irrigation projects along the Nile." (Rita and I try to get checked out back in the States. We test negative and we are asymptomatic, for whatever that’s worth.)

Luxor

We take the train to Luxor. (In case it isn’t clear, I lean into overland travel vs. air travel for within-vacation stuff, since it’s usually more pleasant if not cheaper and easier.)

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While we are in Luxor, we make sure to partake in the traditional Ancient Egyptian hot air balloon ride. (Luxor is also a great place to learn to walk like an Egyptian.)

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We see the Valley of Kings, the Ramesseum, etc. but by this point we’ve seen more than enough ancient Egyptian ruins to last us for a good while and in particular the ladies are over it. Medinet Habu is pretty interesting, especially because of the mystery of the Sea Peoples. (These are shots of Medinet Habu.)

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The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut.

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From Deir el-Medina.

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While at Karnak Temple.

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At Luxor Temple. The first is from the avenue between Luxor and Karnak temples. The last is from a collection of Egyptian monument fragments reassembled and ordered by period, which let you see the deep conservatism of Egyptian art and the subtle influences over different historical periods (such as when the Greeks and Romans showed up).

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We also go shopping. Through perseverence, I am eventually able to purchase a Stella Beer t-shirt (motto: "That which does not kill us, makes us stronger"). We end up in a multi-level souvenir store which according to my credit card statement was called "George Bazaar". JC spends some time buying jewelry, and in particular silver. The store seems to be operated by Coptic Christians. (Interestingly, the word "Coptic" is a corruption of a word which was itself the corruption of a word which was itself a borrowing of the Greek Aigýptios.) When I am back in the States, I ask a family friend, a naturalized Egyptian, what religion he is and whether he is a Coptic Christian. "Let me tell you something," he says, smiling. "If you look at the history, all of that stuff," meaning religion, "that all happened in Egypt. We invented the whole thing."

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We saw some of these little water-fountain kinds of things, which I thought were fascinating (a far cry from the wells we had in Cameroon), but never got close enough to really interact with.

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We engaged a local entrepreneur to drive us around on motos for a little while. Here the ladies are posing ferociously. (Well, I think Rita just looks ferocious by accident while she tries to untie her hair.)

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Murals in Egypt were quite charming. (The first is in Aswan, the others in Luxor.)

We take a sleeper train overnight from Luxor to Cairo. Next to the Luxor train station is a liquor store (Drinkies) and I am able to purchase a few beers for the trip.

Cairo

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Cairo is a nice enough city. (I find time to take the subway, which is pleasant.)

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The view from our balcony.

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Another carob juice vendor (or whatever it is). I’ll drink anything!

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Although we are completely sick of ancient structures, we take the time to go to see the Pyramids. We have a terrible time. First, we try to go with someone we met on the train, but he flakes out on us, costing us valuable time and making us look stupid. Second, when we finally arrive at the site, we are pressured into riding animals (we accept out of fear of being hassled too much while inside the pyramid complex, and also because of misunderstanding of just how large the site is — it’s only about 1km a side), for which we pay too much. Third, after all the intricate carvings we’ve seen at all the different temple, the pyramids themselves are underwhelming — just giant piles of blocks. Wikivoyage describes the Sphinx as "a frankly mangy-looking lion" and they’re not wrong.

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However, our "handlers" (from whom we rented the animals) encourage us to take the time to stage several ridiculous photos.

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Behind the scenes of the shots.

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The photos are so ridiculous that looking at them after they are taken is enough to reduce the ladies to hysterics.

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We also visit Saqqara, which has some slightly-more-interesting monuments. (We come within sighting range of the Pyramid of Djoser and the Pyramid of Userkaf.)

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We see the Citadel and the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, which is rich and stunning.

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We see Old Cairo, which is fascinating and beautiful.

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We also visit Al Azhar Park, which is an upscale paid-admission park. While we are eating ice cream, some people come up to us and ask to take photos with us. It’s not unlike in Cameroon. Operating under the doctrine of "once a PCV, always a PCV" I pose dutifully with many different Egyptians. However, Julie loves the attention and has a great time being photographed. The taxi back to the hostel overcharges us.

Thus ends our trip. Even the baggage handlers at Cairo airport who hoist your luggage through the scanning equipment ask for tips. Although this could be considered a nice example of local flavor, I feel that this is a violation of the international monoculture/cultural imperialism of airports and give them nothing. While shopping in the duty-free store to kill time, Rita and I buy a bottle of Egyptian rosé (Obelisk brand) for $6.

Notes

Our planning efforts were aided by Jenny Wang’s heroic blog posts: Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. Additionally, this site on the overland crossings from Israel to Jordan was pretty helpful.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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Another similar article of clothing.

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Fresh produce in Ramallah.

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Olives at the shuk in Jerusalem.

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One of several spice merchants scattered throughout Jerusalem.

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

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

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

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

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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:

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

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Brussels.

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

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

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

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Mitrallette.

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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.

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

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

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Airplane cognac. Only on Air France…

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Mur (Thursday, 2012 August 2)

August 3rd, 2012

Here I am now in Yaoundé, at the case for what is probably the last time. I’ve spent the entire week juggling administrivia and Boris, who helped me down from post, and although I haven’t learned any Czech, written the last one or two installments of the fiction, found former Volunteer of my village Dinah Peck (or possibly Diana Peck?), nor seen all the Yaoundé-based people I wanted to see, I’ve still gotten to see some of my favorite Volunteers, weighed myself (around 190 lbs., making my weight gain about 15 lbs.), drank sufficiently, and performed a certain number of medical tests. I’m sure you will all be pleased to know that my stool sample was negative, my weight gain is not the result of a thyroid problem, my blood tests were fine, I’m still HIV negative, and my TB test was positive. It’s been, in short, a pretty fun and relaxing week, and I keep waking up after sleeping too much after going to bed too late with the sensation that I just had a terribly meaningful dream that helped me center and come to terms with my Peace Corps Experience.

Tomorrow I cease to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, and start being Another White Guy in Cameroon. (Although I guess you never really stop being a Volunteer.) The next three days will require a bit of finesse as I bounce from place to place. The current plan is: Friday night at maybe Claude’s, Saturday night in Bafia, Sunday night maybe with Yaya or whoever manages to get a hotel room here in Yaoundé, and then Monday it’s time to go.

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One of the traditions here in Peace Corps Cameroon is that COS-ing volunteers sign this wall in the living room. Putting your name, village, years of service, and program are all pretty standard. Lately a lot of people have been adding quotes or jokes. J-Veld and Lindsey D. have this tag-team thing going on, but "Why did the fungi leave the party?/ Because there wasn’t mush-room" is lame in just the right way that I’m OK with it.

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Of course, the whole thing is somewhat silly because every few years the wall fills up and they have to repaint it. And anyhow Peace Corps Cameroon is trying to move its office and thus the case. In the end, the whole thing is utterly and absolutely provisoire, and perhaps reflects a deeper, maybe somewhat depressing truth about service, along the lines that you get to fill a role for two years here, but I just don’t believe that an impact has been made. But maybe that’s just a limited form of cynicism that will go away bien tôt — certain Cameroonians have said that their previous interactions with former Peace Corps Volunteers have made them what they are, even if they were not the best students, and that perhaps the impacts of your presence or absence are yet to really be felt.

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Allison decided to eschew any pretense of wisdom, and drew a hippo as a reference to a humorous and somewhat dangerous experience she had kayaking down a river and ending up face-to-face with a hippo (one of the more dangerous animals on this continent). She, thinking like me, decided to write it on a bookcase, figuring that it is slightly less likely to be painted over and might even end up being transported to a new case, providing her a better shot at Peace Corps immortality.

As for me, I spent a good long time trying to figure out how to take these biting and depressing insights about the ceaseless parade of warm bodies and shape it into a twelve-to-twenty word sound bite. As with many things, I decided that the most profound way I could express myself was with a quote, namely: "There are no sweeter words than this: Nothing lasts forever.." Out of deference to the cheerful optimism of my fellows, and perhaps a sense of perverseness, I decided to write it "hidden" under a blackboard that’s hanging on another bookcase. I feel like perhaps I could have done better with the whole thing, but all in all I’m a little pleased with the result.

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[Edit: I don’t appear to have any pictures of it. But I did take a picture of the thing I wrote down in honor of Jenny Wang, so you get a picture of that.]

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Here are the names of some of the gone-but-not-forgotten, including Henry, Austin, Timothy, and Lindsay C.

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Some cute pictures of Volunteers relishing their rare time together.

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Our gonging-out, which is a ceremony where Admin says "Thanks" and "Good-bye" to those volunteers who have proudly served their countries. Honored Directress Lahoma is already gone — early COS, ha ha — and the new one, Jackie something or other, seems pretty sharp and quite on top of things.

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I’m, of course, sitting next to Queen Cristina, and we’re both wearing our Bamiléké outfits. (Mine was a present from the Batié Mayor’s Office. I don’t know where hers came from.) Here I was responding to Francis’s saying that I was a "notable"; I was clarifying that they just gave me the clothes, specifically that I had found a notable in a dark alley in Bafoussam and decided that I could make better use of the outfit.

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Volunteers who are all COSing together, meaning doing the same medical stuff and ceasing to be Volunteers on the same day, get to gong out together. Here are the rest of the people from our COS group.

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The new Honored Directress.

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COSing means you get the coveted Peace Corps Cameroon pin, which depicts the American and Cameroonian flags and the Peace Corps logo. (You can just barely see it near my shoulder.)

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I was supported by Claude and Boris, depicted here with Jake.

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Family photo! The Peace Corps sign is taken off the main admin building, and we think the orientation is quite stylish.

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Habits (Thursday, 2012 July 19)

July 19th, 2012

[Edit: the original title of this post was Sportif, which was also used on 2011 November 24, so I changed it to Habits, which means "clothes", or, in Anglophone, "dresses". Neither title really has anything to do with the text of this entry, just the pictures at the end..]

Today I’m in the Baffice (pet name given to the Organization "office" in Bafoussam, where running water and good-quality Internet abound), for official reasons that are completely legitimate. However, being here reminds me of Kevin’s birthday party a week ago, and specifically the aftermath, where salad was being made sloppily in the kitchen while everyone else was asleep. I’m not sure we cleaned the lettuce properly. The next morning, that salad was like an edible scavenger hunt, with the lettuce being accompanied by spoons and even a piece of chocolate. It’s the kind of silliness that feels good looking back, not "got trashed and puked red" like at other parties.

It’s raining here in Bafoussam, not hard but thoroughly, and there’s a fog and everything is muddy. Rain is generally a good trigger in this country to put me in a good mood, and if that weren’t enough I’m having some of a box of white wine that I found at the Boulangerie du Peuple. Quite a turnaround from last night, when I was so ticked off I didn’t know what I was liable to do.

See, there’s Boris who I’ve written about, who is by and large a decent dude, and there’s also my neighbor’s kid Boris, who composed the Bac this year (after failing it last year). He’s kind of a tool. He took the skill I taught him, of formatting computers, and he immediately started charging people to do it. I tried not to get too upset about it — after all, he’s probably still saving people money that they’d have to spend to go to Bafoussam to find a technician — but it immediately soured my relationship with him. Afterwards, I lent him something that didn’t come back — apparently sometimes he just finds stuff around the house, can’t identify the owner (a family of 9!), and sells it — putting him solidly on my "avoid" list. He had borrowed 2000 CFA (about $4), never paid it back, and suddenly disappeared to Yaoundé without paying me back. (Brondone apparently reminded him about the money, and he responded with something rude about how he was going to leave me with the debt or something like that.) He lies a lot and even his girlfriend(s?) know and yet still kick around with him. He’s taken money from his younger brothers — and probably people outside his family too — to develop photos, which he hasn’t.

And even barring his rotten personality, he’s an idiot technically too. Every computer failure is a virus and the remedy is always a reformat. He’s mastered that thing about indigenous knowledge where you know it absolutely, so it must be true. Even people who ought to know better, like Fokui, have been brought up short by his confidence. I hate, hate, hate people like this. It’s completely fine to not know something, but if you act like you know something when you’re talking out your ass, especially if you’re an egotistical Big Man on the High School Campus, then you’re a twat. Shit’s fucked up.

Before I continue this story, let me make it clear that I don’t like to lie. Trust is hard enough in this country, or any country, and I have found that once broken, even in a small way, it’s impossible to get it back. I think other Volunteers are more comfortable with it, especially making up things about how the Organization doesn’t allow this-or-that thing, but I just don’t do it, as a general rule.

Anyhow Brondone came over last night saying that his mom (Marie-Chantal, or Marie-Cha, or Ma-Cha) had talked to Boris on the phone and he’d asked the mother to ask me to burn him a couple CDs of Linux. Normally I’d be pleased to help turn someone onto the open source thing and so forth, but I think this person would be a net loss. I told Brondone to tell his mom that I wasn’t doing fuck-all for his son until he paid back my 2000 CFA. I was hoping that she would be shocked that her son owed me money — unlike the other kids, Boris is certainly age of majority and has means of getting money if he needs — and would put the screws into him, possibly repaying my money. But really most important to me was that he be punished. (After all, the money’s small potatoes, even here.) Brondone wasn’t completely thrilled about being the bearer of this particular message, because his mother may have implied that he shouldn’t mention that Boris was the originator of this particular request. But Brondone’s been the victim of Boris’s shit too, so he went and told as I asked.

Brondone came back a little later, saying, "When I said that, she got angry!" Not at Boris, mind you, nor at me, but at Brondone: "She had wanted me to lie! For the money, she prefers that he keep it!" Well, that’s a shame. "Aren’t you going to go talk to her?" No. If I’m lucky, I will never talk to her again. "She’s probably going to come by and try to invent some story about what’s going on. But you didn’t hear it from me!"

I hate when people try to put one over on me. In French I say I hate when people try to jongler me, which literally means juggle. And Marie-Cha is my neighbor. Has she not already profitéd enough from me? Is it really necessary that she not only protect her thieving son but that she try to lie to me about it? I spent a good two or three hours angry, trying to debate the merits of trying to sell her CDs which contained only a text file saying "Fuck. You." and sundry other invective. Plan B was to look her in the eye and say "I don’t have any CDs" while taking the CDs that I do have and breaking them in half. But then I took an hour or two to organize files on my machine, and calmed down enough to have an idea. I love ideas.

Remember that Marie-Cha’s family is well-off enough to have a computer, but the lady is a Biology teacher. So when she shows up the next morning and says "I want you to burn me two CDs of the Linux system," someone told her about it. She doesn’t even try to offer a story about miscommunication or Brondone’s misunderstanding of a situation or anything.

"I’m so sorry," I say. "I deleted them. I already freed the space. I don’t have them any more."

"Way." (Weird Cameroonian interjection.) "Well, now what am I going to do?"

"If you give me a little money," I said, "I could go to the cybercafe and download them again."

"How much money?"

"Three thousand." Volunteers aren’t supposed to "turn a profit", as it were; we’re being paid already. But one good turn deserves another.

"Fine. But in that case I want three CDs."

I’m leaning now towards actually burning the CDs and not leaving her hanging. But I haven’t made up my mind.

Anyhow, while I was cleaning up the files on my hard drive, I found these pictures that Boris apparently took at the lycée. Let’s consider those repayment of my debt too.

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This is Clovis and Stevine. Stevine was one of the students I liked better, although that did change once she cheated blatantly on her finals. She’s smaller than the other kids, which as a general rule means she’s smarter, because she’s younger so didn’t have to retake exams too much.

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They’re all at the épreuves sportives, which is like their final exam for gym class. Or maybe it’s inter-lycee sports. They tend to dress up on these sorts of days, but I don’t know exactly who they’re trying to impress. This shot is a hell of a lot better than whoever was filming it deserves.

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Youdom V. V., one of my favorite students, doing the shot-put (no idea what that’s called in French).

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They wear socks when they’re being sportif, apparently.

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Cameroonian girls especially tend to do this kind of glamor shot.

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Probably most of these students are in my Terminale class, but I only recognize Stevine (red shirt). Check out the patterns on their leggings!

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That’s Poula on the right with his hands in the air. Brilliant kid, one of the few Cameroonians to notice when I’m being sarcastic and laugh.

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Boris is in the green socks.

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Corneille, also from that Terminale class, who is incidentally hooking up with a chick in 3e. Check out those pants!

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Reconnaître (Thursday, 2012 June 7)

June 7th, 2012

Some words are really difficult to translate into French (lately I’ve been thinking about "home", "acknowledge"/"acknowledgment", "mind", and even "get"), and at first "grateful"/"gratitude" gave me a hard time too. But if you open your trusty M-W French-English dictionary, issued by Organization Cameroon Headquarters in Yaoundé, to page 534, you’ll see that "grateful" is translated as reconnaissant, literally "recognizing". Oddly, "gratitude" is translated as reconnaissance or also gratitude. Thanks, the French language!

Anyhow the point I’m trying to get at is that I was recently "recognized" in some way for the "work" I’m doing here in Cameroon. Honored Directress intercepted me at a bar in Yaoundé and said she’d received this weird Congressional thing from my Congressman, and that it was a really nice thing saying thank you for serving as a Volunteer. All of us at the table looked at one another like, "Wait, why Ethan??" and I even asked her "Do they know how much I drink?"

So thanks for the recognition, the Honorable Ed Towns — but if it were me, I’d prefer to recognize: my postmate Queen Cristina, Kim from the next village over, Rosalie in the Far North, and maybe one or two others. Side note: there are four different Volunteers all over the world just from our voting district?? New York is amazing.

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While I’m uploading stuff, here’s a blurry picture taken by the Boys of one of my students, the one named "Nouyock Luther Theo" — the one who stood up almost two years ago when I said I was from New York, and said "Monsieur, that’s my name!" (Apparently "Nouyock" in local dialect means notre chose, "our thing".) He’s even wearing traditional garb for my borough, the hoodie:

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Here’s a slightly better one, where he’s looking a little like a Volunteer himself.

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Telecentre (Monday, 2012 June 4)

June 5th, 2012

As promised, here are some pictures of the telecentre.

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You can see it’s not a big place, just the four computers. Still, they’re pretty well-equipped — scanner, photocopier, printer, and UPSes for each machine. The girl in the shiny jacket is Cecile, she’s the "secretary" and somewhat-manager of the place. Like most people who know "secretariat", she has a relatively large amount of fairly shallow knowledge about computers. Example: she knew a keyboard shortcut to toggle the case of text in Microsoft Word.

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One of the machines. They’re new, and they’re the TEG brand, which allegedly comes from Dubai. Word on the street is, not great quality at an extremely reasonable price. Flat-screens!

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The auxiliary appliances.

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Cecile is showing Josiane something. Josiane’s been coming too, trying to snatch up whatever little knowledge she can get before she goes away for the summer.

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Ceremonie (Sunday, 2012 April 30)

May 2nd, 2012

After we got back was the Books for Cameroon ceremony, which I mostly avoided, playing gopher and otherwise trying to try to defray the amount of hassle Cristina was no-doubt going through.

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Pre-party.

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The beneficiaries. My proviseur is bottom-middle, looking directly into the camera.

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This is my neighbor, who makes wooden food (and apparently beer).

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Some French people who were unable to go to the ceremony because it started two or three hours late.

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The Chef was so proud of her efforts that he made her village nobility. Her official title is "Mafo something something" which translates as "queen of development". One of the things I really love about my postmate is that she hasn’t let becoming royalty go to her head!

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Feast!

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Diaspora (Saturday, 2012 April 29)

May 2nd, 2012

The Books for Cameroon sorting got pretty massive, pretty fast, and though Spring Break started, I hardly even noticed — I was still in the lab every day that I wasn’t helping to sort. It got kinda tense because time was running out: Cristina and I had COS Conference, and the ceremony of giving of the books was going to be just after we got back.

But then there was COS Conference. COS is an Organization-specific acronym for "close of service", and there was a three-day conference for us to learn how to do it well — both Organization procedures and details, and larger issues like how to get a job and transition back to civilian life.

Traditionally, COS Conference is held in a swank hotel, as part of an implicit message of "Congratulations! You made it!" This year it was at a hotel near downtown Yaoundé — there was air conditioning, hot water, and even a swimming pool! Yaoundé is a lot nicer when you’re submerged in AC all the time.

This conference was markedly different from other Organization "training" events, lighter somehow. Less stuff each day, less intense sessions. I don’t know if they think a Volunteer at this point in their service is burnt out, or just out of patience with Washington’s idea of "training". But, we are Volunteers, and we drank a lot after those sessions.

A few useful or interesting bits of information were shared with us, but the priority for us were:

  1. Language testing, to measure our post-service levels of French.
  2. COS dates, i.e. when am I going home.
  3. Information on whether or not we are going to be replaced.

In true Organization fashion, none of these were fully taken care of until after the conference was over.

  1. Language assessments are done in the Organization with a test called the LPI, the Language Proficiency Interview. Attentive readers may recall that this test gave me a hard time in stage. They are treated, both by Volunteers and Admin as though they are a real thing. In fact, lots of Volunteers are angry or upset about their language levels, feeling they deserved higher grades — a feeling I understand and can identify with. I’ve also had lots of fun discussions along the lines of "I still can’t believe Cherry Drop got such-and-such a level; her French is terrible".

    But here’s the thing: the LPI is completely Organization-specific. Go ahead; Google it. It doesn’t even exist outside of our little ivory tower. I tried looking for strategies on passing it back in stage and came up empty. It’s a non-starter. So, yeah, you’d like to hear that your French got better after two years of speaking it imperfectly. But it’s like putting your Klout score on your resume — some group of mendicants assigned you a completely arbitrary level based on vague and indeterminate criteria? Wow, way to be qualified/disqualified for a job! Come on, guys. Anyone who actually cares how well you know French is going to find out the traditional way: by talking to you in French. (Though we can all agree that Cherry Drop will probably figure out a way to turn this to her advantage.)

    Language levels came out a few days after the conference, and were followed later by emails of the form "Dearest ETHAN, you was scored ADVANCED MID on the LPI". Official!

  2. COS dates were apparently screwed up due to Washington. People who had applied for early COS dates hadn’t all heard back yet, and they would have had priority on the first batch of regular COS dates if they were rejected, so we all got to sit on our hands for a week or two after the conference ended and wait-and-see. Allegedly Washington had a hard time processing everything because Mali just got evacuated.

    At first I got the earliest COS date, which was awesome, but then I managed to change it to a later date (?!) to better coordinate with friends I want to see in Europe. I officially cease being a Volunteer August 3rd, and expect to be home a couple weeks after that.

  3. I told my boss that I think my village is awesome but my school is dysfunctional and that I don’t think we should be high on the list of getting another volunteer. My school really wanted another volunteer, of course, soit informatique or soit English, and there’s certainly a handful of deserving students.. but I’m betting the small group of incoming volunteers will probably be more effective anywhere else.

Other random tidbits: when someone in the States asks you about your experience as a Volunteer, you get 15 seconds max. We saw the American Embassy in Yaoundé and it was sweet. Talking about resumes and interviews got me really excited to go looking for another job!

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The view from the hotel room. So exciting to have stories! This is "Rond Point Nlongkak", pronounced like "Long Cock".

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Everybody got dressed up for dinner at Honored Directress’s place.

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In front of the hotel. Prices for alcohol were ridiculous and they wouldn’t let us bring in drinks so the first night we sat outside here and drank (apparently way too loudly).

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Jessica Worful.

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The whole family. Honored Directress is the one lying down (lower left).

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Trying to look busy.

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We also went to a stupid monkey park which was almost two hours away. Here’s Timothy trying to fit in.

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Trier (Sunday, 2012 April 8)

April 8th, 2012

This is the blog post I wanted to write two or three weeks ago, when I was still hip-deep in it, but it got pushed to the side.

My postmate Cristina inherited this Books For Cameroon project from our predecessor, a lady named Wendy. Cristina recently succeeded in bringing a French bookstorm to Cameroon. Over 21000 books, which may not seem like a lot but wait until you are faced with over 450 cardboard boxes of books, packed by a French NGO according to subject, to be divided amongst 30 different libraries. Nice books, don’t get me wrong, but.. so many of them.

I was called upon by the forces of good, namely Yaya and Kevin (not depicted). Cristina had been spending a lot of time working on spreadsheets deciding how books needed to be distributed, taking into account size of library, likely user population, levels of students available nearby, etc. We needed to transform boxes of books arranged by title into boxes of books arranged by library. Yaya and Kevin thought it might be possible to use some of those informatique skills I’m rumored to have to transform the various kinds of inputs into a different kind of output: a list, organized by box, of how many of each book needed to go to which libraries. But time flows like a river, and history repeats..

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Josiane in the "stacks", looking for a box to unpack.

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Quid is apparently a French one-volume encyclopedia, very text-heavy, sorted by subject (not alphabetically). No idea why they sent a box full of "XML In a Nutshell"..

Nothing is ever easy in Cameroon. At best it’s inconvenient. This is one of the things you learn how to do in Cameroon: lower your expectations, and cope. This is a skill that is adaptive for an individual but toxic for a society, because what impetus is there for Cameroon to improve or thrive when nobody complains?

Cristina is a wizard genius scientist for pulling off this project as well as she did. She found a French association, ADIFLOR (something like "Association pour la diffusion international de la francophonie par les livres, oeuvres et revues") who give away books. Nice quality books too, much nicer than what you find in-country. We spent a little while wondering amongst ourselves where the books came from and why we were getting them (as we generally can’t have nice things). Leading theory is that these are misprints and discards convening to outdated school curricula.

Anyhow Cristina did some fundraising to get the money to pay to transport the books to Cameroon, and ADIFLOR has a "special relationship" with Cameroon, so between them and the Lions Club, the books popped right out of customs and drove up here on a truck. After I was drafted by the volunteers doing the sorting just a thirty-minute walk away, I jumped in, banging out code and solving problems with Kevin until late at night. It was perhaps the most fun I’ve had in this country, a harsh reminder that the thing that I love to do most is not that thing for which I volunteered. Different Volunteers cope in different ways, some coming up with worthless make-work projects based around their skillset, some (myself) just drinking way too much and daydreaming about the days when they can finally have job interviews and resumes.

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Cristina, packing up sorted books. The technical challenges are, as always, fairly minor when compared to the auxiliary challenges — the packing list being sent to us as a PDF, for example, or how Cristina’s spreadsheet didn’t match up exactly to the packing list. We supported, of course, and when we were good, we were amazing — a book-sorting, box-packing Volunteer machine extracting energy from music and late-night bad decisions.

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Cristina said that she didn’t really find a lot of guidance on the Interwebs around this kind of project or how to approach it, so let me give you a few pieces of advice. First, verify that all the boxes are there before you start. Our shipment got tangled up with a shipment for the Lions Club, and we got some of their boxes and I bet they also got some of ours. Some boxes are just completely MIA but it’s hard to know if they’re there or if we maybe just repacked them already. Second, the spreadsheet is a good idea but I’m not completely sure what benefit it provided. If we hadn’t had it, we would have just opened boxes and partagéd books fairly evenly. Is it optimal? No, but it’s a lot easier. Thirdly, get lots of cardboard boxes ready. You can never have too many cardboard boxes.

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Josiane (the one who has a crush on me) followed me to the book sorting, and she was actually kind of helpful. Brondone, my neighbor’s kid, was less helpful.

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These books are already sorted. (You can tell because of the labels specifying where they’re going.)

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