Thursday, January 26, 2006

The End of a Regimen

Dear all,

My long and beautiful (and heavy-as-hell) braids are out.
I wore a scarf and wool peacoat for most of this week.
And, to top it all off, I took my last Doxycycline pill today.

It was supposed to be a ritual moment rising above the daily and ordinary - something emotional, ceremonial, even memorable - but it was not. The end of a malaria prophylaxis regimen just slid and slumped into the day, more unnoticed than ever before. As is actually quite rare for me, I forgot the little blue capsule this morning... Even worse, I didn't agonize over that minor medical and major ceremonial infraction; in fact, by the time I arrived at my 9 a.m. econ recitation, I had forgotten that I had forgotten. When I finally made it home tonight for a brief bag-repacking, I popped that last Doxy into my mouth as a mere second-thought, even without water to wash it down, because there wasn't time. And, amazingly - disappointingly, it went down well. No sticking, no choking, no nausea, no dry mouth. ...Just another, final day of heightened immunity against dangers that I no longer face.

Isn't it strange, how quickly we move on...? I was slightly let-down, for a while, with my weak culture shock; the entire thing was lame, uneventful, and nothing special to write about. Since my return, I have yearned to write in the blog, with news and rants and revelations - but they did not crowd my head. I simply got off of the plane in Pittsburgh, found a familiar kind of commotion still happening all around, stepped onto that moving walkway (toward baggage claim, toward a different life) like it was nothing out of the ordinary, and became a part of it. Everything in Cameroon that should have been ordinary was extraordinary, and all the relatively extraordinary things here instantly seemed so...ordinary. I found that friends were still friends, family was still home, and home was still there. It was comforting and lovely; but at the same time, I wondered when the reality would finally come crashing down on me. It never did. Or maybe it already had - gently nudging, instead of crashing, its way back into me.

So why do I feel different and so good today, and what am I writing about? The change that strikes me is not in my surroundings - but rather, in me. Of course, having culture shock against oneself would be awkward and probably internally/psychologically disruptive, and I cannot imagine it; but cultural awe - THAT I can tell you about. Someone asked me a cruel and well-rehearsed question the other day: "Which is better, Cameroon or Penn?" Well, there's no good answer. The bliss that I'm floating through now is not because Penn is wonderful and Cameroon was horrible; but because they are perfect complements. ...If I have just spent a semester eating prickly and tangy, shockingly pink fruits, bought in a somewhat prickly and tangy, startlingly loud market - then now I'm sipping on rich, frothy creams while smooth vanilla odors waft by, sinking into a velvet chair so wide and inviting that I lose my curled legs between its fuzzy purple armrests. A life of tang and spice desensitizes the tongue, and living on vanilla and froth forever would give me a tummy ache - but one after the other, alternating these worlds and sensibilities and stimuli, is like taking a never-ending, sweet, sweet vacation.

I can see now, that I didn't appreciate Penn before Cameroon. I resented its froth - too airy and foamy; its cream - too soft and thick; its plush chairs - too damn plush. But when all of that went missing in Cameroon, I had no qualms with finding substitutes, and I revelled in a semester-long parade through excessive color and sound, smell and taste, friends and travel and adventure. In so doing, I have realized that there is nothing necessarily noble or selfless (perhaps only soul-less) about self-denial...particularly when those things offered can be better enjoyed and utilized by you, than by anyone else. Honestly - no Cameroonian in her right mind would deny herself the luxuries offered by Penn, if they were instead offered at her school, the University of Yaounde I. That would be stupid, self-injuring, and very short-sighted.

A huge part of being privileged, I believe, is accepting responsibility for all that one has. But how to do/be that? Well, for one: I have to be responsible to others, so that one day those with much less than I have, may have more. But also: I must be responsible to myself. ...Responsible and responsive, that is, to all that I have: loving family and great friends, inspiring role models in all of them, clean water, amazing classes, attentive and enthusiastic professors, internship opportunities, fast internet, warm shoes, bright lights, uni-ball pens, yoga classes, free time, a wide selection of good and fairly-priced diary products, etc. I will take advantage of these advantages - because I can do that, and ultimately translate that privilege into a power that creates advantages for someone else, more easily and efficiently than anyone else. The opportunities are, after all, knocking at MY door. It is time for me to answer to them.


Cameroon, once overwhelmingly foreign to me, is where I found countless homes. I found a home in the families that opened their doors and arms to host me - for I always had a room of my own, a warm and happy house to come back to, and, most importantly, a group of people who wanted to know me and grow close to me. I found a home at work - where I developed projects of my own, learned that an idle mind is the most insufferable work experience of all, and so struggled, and succeeded, in earning others' time and attention so that I could produce meaningfully. I found a home in distant lands, in Dschang and Yaounde, and in places even farther away than those - through travel that brought me to the doorsteps of strangers, passing nights as if old friends, and in the morning choosing plots of land for my future thatched hut in their village. But these homes I have left the extent that I can only visit them through phone and email contacts, until I return.

However, I also found a home in myself - a satisfaction, a sense of worth and guidance and purpose, that I did not before possess. That is the comfort and confidence that I carry with me, and that is the home in which I am now living. That is why I feel different and so happy; and that is why, every day, I remember and give thanks for the unforgettable experiences of last semester.

Love to everyone who I love, everywhere. Thank you for all your reading and supporting,


Sunday, December 18, 2005

Recipe of the Week: Dakkere (yoghurt cous-cous)

This is a rich, refreshing, and nicely textured yoghurt dish for a breakfast or late-night treat. You can prepare the parts separately far in advance, and just mix as you eat! It was served at the Bar Laitier (Dairy Bar) with a bowl of fine sugar to sweeten to taste; in Idool, it was the main breakfast dish, accompanied by tea, avocado slices, and sugar and honey. One other difference; the standard dakkere cous-cous is the kind we find in stores (and in tabouli and other middle eastern dishes); the dakkere cous-cous in Idool is the gold standard and somewhat gourmet, made from dried sweet potatoes and like a course, dark, and pungent flour. Thickest yoghurt is best. This is the recipe that we are all more likely to make...

plain yoghurt, preferably not non- or low-fat
fine white or brown sugar, as desired

1. prepare cous-cous, drain well and keep slightly warm
2. cool yoghurt
3. put sugar in a cute little bowl with an even cuter, even littler spoon
4. serve three parts unmixed

mix and eat. yum again!

A Final Semi-Solo Adventure

Dear all,

A train ride to Ngaoundere (city) and Idool (village), in the arid Muslim North of Cameroun, was a totally sun-drenched, laid-back, dairy-loaded, hyphenated experience. Even the train ride, long and late as usual, was pleasant. Here are some reflections...

1. Train rides are hopelessly romantic...even if the toilet is a glorified hole to the ground whizzing below, the outside door won't stay shut, and you nearly fall from your unprotected upper bunk is so nice to weave through the country on a thread or two of metal. Even the regularly unsettling travel moments felt surreal and distant. ...At every screeching stop, children crowded the high windows to sell honey, bananas, papaya, and sticks of manioc; ordinarily this would make me feel bad, but now I could just reach out, buy honey and fruit at obscenely low prices, and lay back in my bed (out of sight, out of mind) to enjoy the purchases. The sleeper cabin was a refuge, a small and closed and comfortable world that permitted us to let in and out experiences, as we pleased. So it is more of a Train Trick than a Train Truth; if it's not a bush taxi you're traveling in in Cameroun, it feels like a different country entirely.

2. Over-specialization and poor communication make for inefficient work. I do like and support the division of labor in pin-making and other important industries, but for train security and customer service - not so much! ...The light switch in our cabin was particularly hard to find, so we asked the cabin security guard to help us. He did not know. We asked the passing stewardess, but she could not help. Finally, the train technician was summoned to demonstrate the very complicated switching "on/off" motion - a flick of the button - when all we needed was to be shown its location! ...When I noticed that the strap on my bed was missing, and that I might fall off and break my head, I again asked security and stewardess for a replacement. 'Twas to no avail. If only the train parts supplier was there, they explained, he might be able to help.

3. The snorer always falls asleep first. Just as true for sleeper cars, as it is in marriage and at slumber parties.

4. Don't check your watch. We covered 885 km in 19 hours - just about 47 km/hr. This is the same speed that I calculated, kilometer marker after kilometer marker, as I watched the land pass by from the window. 77 s/km, on average. Damn snorer, I couldn't sleep...

What a bright little paradise! The streets of Ngaoundere are sun-drenched and serene - all the buildings are low so that you can see the pink and blue sunset over the dusty market paths, and the clean and artful public squares with soft outdoor lights and burning wood stoves, are softly luminous in the night... For moments of rest from the blazing sun, I slipped into our neat little auberge for a nap or a shower. After hours, the most popular hang-out spot was a dairy bar - serving many times more yoghurt and warm milk than beer to its loyal customers.

Mornings were spent between the crowded and friendly corner breakfast joint (a true Pamela's equivalent, for you Pittsburghers) and the colorful and aromatic market, where piles of colorful spices and fruits wafted tempting scents throughout the stalls. Everything was good and cheap: hand-made jewelry, fuzzy horse-hair slippers, grapefruits and avocadoes, fresh yoghurt, cloth and sewing, and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. So my major activity was ducking - into our simple auberge for a nap, between tight-fitted and randomly-numbered market stalls in search of a lost tailor's store #634, and under the curtains of warm and worn concrete dwellings at the side of the road, which opened into food courtyards. Women in the corner of the courtyard worked and chatted in their cave-like kitchen - under a huge draped tarp, the uneven ground was covered with stools, knealing bodies, and steaming pots of food. At the other corner, men ordered and were served huge tin platters of cous-cous and sauce, and sat cross-legged on the ground to eat. Being neither meat-eater nor male excluded me from most of these establishments, but I enjoyed finding them and inquiring after a veggie meal nonetheless - if only to catch a glimpse of the scene!

In the afternoons and evenings, it was safe to explore the central part of town. The public squares hosted good restaurants, alongside prayer areas (concrete slab or sand pit floor) and street entertainers. One unforgettable night, the biggest spectacle was that of a white girl screaming hysterically and running for her life, away from a fast-slithering king cobra and his hungry venom... The snake catcher was demonstrating his craft, and, despite the comforting explanations of his potion-filled amulet and its taming (temporarily de-venomizing) powers, I was slightly disbelieving and very, VERY frightened! He snatched the snake from only a foot or so away from my sandaled toes, and I must admit that it was not just a good demonstration - but a great advertisement - for his work. I wish him great success, so that he never has to do that to another poor person.

Does Idool have its name because it looks like 'ideal', and this is the ideal place to be? Or could it be because it sounds like 'idol', and I nearly idolize the chief of the village? Perhaps, by some very thoughtful and correct person, it was named for both of these reasons...

If I ever become the chief of a village - or really, if I ever get to live in a village - I will do it just like in Idool. We will all live in gorgeous round huts (boukarous), with big backyards and flowered front walkways; we will take our cattle on meandering two-week-long treks following the greening of the pastures (at night, sleeping in makeshift huts in the fields - isn't it romantic!); our small community of 2 000 will be the largest producer of milk in all of Cameroun; all of our children, all of them well-behaving, will attend school; we will eat cool yoghurt for breakfast, drink warm sugared milk for dessert, and pluck avocadoes and mangoes off of the trees on the way to work; and we will watch Jackie Chan movies and Ethiopian love music videos until late at night, discussing their genius plots and profound messages in devout seriousness.

Only one change to make - I would let the women out of their kitchens.

Aside from that issue of female oppression, which is huge but somehow not disruptive to the societies I've seen here in the North...this culture just WORKS. I don't know if it's the geography and climate, the dairy industry, or the predominantly Muslim religion in the North that makes it what it is: simply, functional. A city like Ngaoundere, in its calm and comfortable serenity, is immediately different from jostled and conflicted Yaounde. Not everybody in Ngaoundere is well-off, but they seem at least at peace with their surroundings. People on the streets are hardly ever menacing or begging; public spaces are respected and valued, well-kept and inviting; and the leisure culture seems to be fairly relaxed and innocent - dairy bars preferred over alcohol bars, sociable morning breakfasts with strangers, and friendly evening gatherings of old men in the parks. The streets are clean. The motorcycle drivers go slowly if you ask them to. Everybody in town, even the competing art dealers, are helpful when I inquire after the home/gallery of "Issek the Artist". And the Internet connection is not bad.

But what is good in Ngaoundere, is stunning in Idool. Not only does this small village produce more milk that any other region in the country, but they also put the proceeds from their sales to really good projects. The local school is totally well-run, and every school-age child in the village - yes, even the girls! - attend daily classes. The boukarou huts are built in an ingenious fashion, to maintain constant temperature and to protect from fire. (The huts have peaked thatched roofs on the exterior and flat wooden ceilings inside. The in-between space is filled with charcoal and soot, so that if the top ever catches on fire, the flames will not be able to eat through the middle to reach the dwelling area. The thick roof and concrete also floors regulate temperature.) Most villages have a helter-skelter design, clawing to rocky hills as if the houses have tumbled down the side and simply latched onto their random resting spots. ...Not surprisingly, Idool is different. All of the homes are arranged in quads - each house has a square plot of land, and every four plots share a corner to make up one large square. These composite squares are then constructed in a grid pattern, with wide streets running along all of their sides. The streets, though carved from dirt, are swept clean every morning and lined with enormous eucalyptus trees - so it looks like a desert, but not dusty, paradise. This layout does not define neighborhoods or other socioeconomic divisions; families just request a particular plot of land from the chief and, when it is granted, build their house. All of the families' farms and grazing fields are located on the periphery, so that the inhabited area is concentrated and efficient, and the village feels much smaller than it is. A man-made lake just outside of Idool has an odd shape; at first I was confused, but soon realized that it was made in the exact shape of Cameroun! Very whimsical, I think. A little farther away, after a good 20 minutes' walk, one comes across a magnificent waterfall. Somewhere between the lake and the waterfall, the chief's brother showed me where they plan to build a low-key and integrated tourist hut and museum, which will hopefully bring some money and attention to their community. Inspired, and with their blessings, I too chose a spot for my hut one day.

Unpredictable. Nail-biting. Leg-biting. ...What can I say? Never take a bush taxi when you're in a rush to get someplace.

Our train was to leave the Ngaoundere station promptly at 6:20 pm, and we were still stuck on the road near Idool, waiting for the promised bush taxi to come hurtling by, at 1:00 pm. We had already been waiting for two hours. (Cameroun runs on a slow clock until you are late, and then everything important becomes painfully on-time.) Finally the wretched vehicle came, and Tafor and I squeezed into seats that hadn't really been saved for us - my row for four was housing five or six people, and below me I felt a feathery warm thing brushing against my legs. Later, getting off the bus at one of the prayer breaks, I peered under the seats and into the dark underworld of the bush taxi: our van-size car, holding over 20 people, was also shuttling four live goats and six squawking chickens. Aaaah! Later on, after yet another prayer break, I was biting my nails and fretting about our train, when...something else bit me. A goat. A hungry goat was gnawing at my shin. I gave a little yelp, then consoled myself with the thought that it was certainly better than a king cobra bite. The optimism did not last long, however - because I looked out of the window and saw, to my horror, that we were being overtaken by a herd of cattle! (I acknowledge that the cattle herders have some remarkable efficiencies, but this was just not fair!!!) Three checkpoints followed, all run by different branches of the police and situated within 2 minutes of each other. We bumbled into Ngaoundere two hours after predicted, at a calculated and painful 9 km/hour... It was 3:29 pm, and the Western Union office with all of my train ticket money closed at 3:30.

Despite a Jackie Chan-inspired leap from the taxi that landed me right on a motorcycle seat, and the wild chase (pointing ahead, "Take me to the Western Union near the Mobil station, where the women sell doughnuts!") and windy hair-blowing that ensued, I arrived at 3:32 pm to find only locked doors. But an ATM (a blessed working one) saved the day, and after some final market pick-ups, I rolled up dusty-bitten-and-tired to meet Tafor at the train station. Nevermind that our reserved seats had been given to crash victims and that no spots were left on the train - that could stop not us now! I cleaned off my face a bit, solicited the help of a train conductor, strolled up to the ticket counter, gave my best story ever (plane leaving for the States tomorrow morning...desperately need to go home...kind and honorable sir, i know that you have the good heart and strong power to help us...), and bought two tickets for Yaounde. We boarded the train at 6:15 pm, and it actually left not more that five minutes later.

It was wonderful to come home to my sisters' smiling faces and a luxuriously clean-tiled shower, neither of which I had seen in a long time. I had done a lot of traveling lately... The next morning I got new braids put in and, in my great new do, spent the afternoon on the couch with a migraine and my first and only bout of stomach pains. By the next night, as I greeted my family from the airplane, I felt entirely better.



Sunday, December 11, 2005

My Painting Purchase No. 2 - I am so happy!

Artist Issek and My Painting Purchase No. 1

Me and Tafor (work friend), Travel Buddies to the North

Tired After the Market

Muslim School and Tiny Shoes

On the Train to Ngaoundéré

Lovin' Lonely Limbé

Dear all,

Limbé was such a gorgeous and innocent town, it reminds me of a young beauty who does not yet know the power of her looks. With the empty black-sand beaches and palm trees of an exclusive resort, backed by steaming rainforest, cloud-shrouded mountains, and the dark stoney statues left by lava flows - this place might appear a hot tourist attraction. But the beaches are empty not because of exclusivity, and the rainforests and mountains are not so stunning because they are protected by strong activist groups and environmental agencies; on the contrary, Limbé is so special because few people yet know that it is special. The tourism industry is so weak that there are only a handful of good, clean hotels in town, and taxis still carry tourists, along with locals, in twice the numbers acceptable by insurance standards. ...On the taxi ride back from the beach, where we sat 4 in the back and 4 in the front (the driver actuallly squished someone between himself and the window!), i heard a voice behind and realized that we were carrying a 9th passenger in the open trunk. !!! With that, it became clear how little Limbé's functioning has been impacted or shaped by tourists - for three months ago, still very new to Cameroon, that taxi ride would have scared the shit out of me...and I would not have wanted to come back for the same experience. Now - for better or for worse - I just laughed in shock and disbelief, and explained to the taximan that "No, fitting 9 people into a car is not the way to impress a white woman into marrying you. Sorry mate."

Anyway, we made the most of this pristine, virtually undiscovered beach paradise. The primate zoo was amazing and thrilling, with tempermental monkeys that throw rocks and jerk off at their female viewers (I received the rock, while Alla recieved the masturbating mandrill - I don't know which is worse!), and slippery bridges that would only be allowed in Cameroon. The animals were kept in secure cages, but there were sometimes no ropes keeping people from getting close - so a monkey with reach could have easily grabbed me at any time, I was standing so close. (I even snuck some leaves and a banana right into the hand of one monkey - but it was scary to be so close to a hungry thing like that, and I left the rest of the job to the trained workers!!! I also didn't want to have rocks thrown at me by the zoo employees, in addition to the inhabitants.) The beach was awesome, and the only problem I had was in trying to preserve my braided hair while splashing into as many ocean waves as possible...but I have decided that if this weave could survive the bus rides to and from Bertoua, and climb up the mountain, how could a little saltwater possibly hurt it now? I definitely was not made for high-maintenance hairstyles.

On the way back, we passed a solidified lava flow right near the road, famous for its location: only about 5 meters from the roadside, this imposing black wall stands at least 15 m high. As this stream of lava rumbled down the mountain 10 years ago, locals dreaded the day when it would cross the road - requiring serious reconstruction efforts to reopen the passageway. But, by the good graces of physics and/or the mountain gods, it stopped and hardened, unexpectedly, just before taking a giant mouthful of asphalt. Could this be proof that the mountain wants more visitors??? Of course, I forgot to ask the gods this pressing question when I was up there this past weekend...but next time I will tie a reminder string around my finger, trudge up to the summit on an empty day with no other tourists in sight, and ask the question. Or maybe, I will forget again. I would not mind if the mountain stays empty and mysterious, as it is, at least for a while longer...for as good as the money and attention might promise to be for the surrounding communities, I don't think that it will trickle down until Cameroon gets a better system of government and wealth/resource distribution. So until then - let's say that lava is just lava, okay?



A Message from the Mountain, Sealed with Lava? (haha, Love-a)

Our Beach for a Day

The Slip'n'Slide Bridge: Evidence of an Under-Developed Tourism Industry

Florida Grandpa Monkey, with Sunscreen on His Nose

Gorillas, and Chimps, and Mandrills - Oh My

A Picture for Pai: Mmmmm, Vegetables!

The Long Tumble

Check It Out: A Sign that Says SUMMIT!!!

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Recipe of the Week: Sauce tomates

A delicious and kind of spicy sauce, much more flavorful than the pasta and pizza sauces we're used to. It is eaten in relatively small quantities, usually with rice, but also can be used for cooking and frying plantains, potatoes, etc...

10 roma tomatoes
0.5 cp oil
1 onion
6 cloves garlic
ground/mashed condiments - some ginger, one stalk celery, handful of basil, handful of parsley
0.5 green pepper
salt, Maggi cubes (tomato and stock flavor) for taste
water (and optional: tomato paste)

1. cut tomatoes, onion, garlic, condiments, and grind them together
2. heat oil in the base of a thick pan
3. fry the ground mix in the oil for about 10 minutes
4. add salt and Maggi cubes
5. add water (and tomato paste, if desired), until the consistency of pizza sauce

eat with rice! yum.

Mt Cameroon: Day 2

Dear all,

So back to the mountain madness... The second day started in the very early morning, when it still felt like night. We headed out at 5 and hiked by torchlight in bundles of fleece for about 2 hours, until the sun rose over the side of the mountain. The sight was gorgeous, but I appreciated it more at the time for its warmth than for its beauty. Well really, fair enough!

The hike was steep, but not quite the rocky 34° slope we had groped our way up the previous night... The sun's rays grew sharper and sharper as the air got cooler; it was pretty windy in the exposed patches, but we did manage to find some still-smoking grottos from the last volcanic eruption, which made warm and sheltered resting places. Upon reaching Hut 3, the approximate half-way point between Hut 2 and the summit, I found some nice soft moss and laid me down to sleep - but with the summit nearly in view (and if you didn't ask any questions of the guide, you could easily mistake the nearer visible crater ridge for the summit, and be deceptively motivated by that "destination"), I was too excited to stop just yet. I also knew that if I let myself rest for too long, I would lose all the momentum I needed to keep going... So we picked ourselves up, rather heavily, and trudged on.

The ground approaching the summit was not as steep as it was simply tricky; with sliding rocks and loose dusty ground, under shaky feet and wobbly muscles, our pace slowed considerably. The rocky world up there reminded me of a desert at night, or perhaps the lunar surface. The robust shrubby wildflowers that scattered the ground made me think of a desert at night, with its cold and wind-swept - but not lifeless - gray sands; and the giant crevices that cut parellel lines of rivers down the slope made me feel like the explorer of some harsh extra-terrestrial planet. I must have needed to go to the bathroom, because I remember thinking what a perfect natural toilet drainage system they formed... (But on second thought, I must have also been tired and not thinking clearly - because what kind of drainage system would that be for the poor people staying below at Huts 2 and 3? Not so nice, actually!)

We summitted at 9 in the morning, having made good time and passed a number of groups along the way. The summit was coooooold and windy, so we did not stay long - just enough to snap some triumphant pictures, look over the endless rocky mountains and valleys on all sides below, contemplate walking over to the nearby crater ridge before descent, decide against it because of the strong winds and cold temperatures, promise to do it next time, find a sheltered moss corner and fall asleep, get woken up by Alla and our guide (Hans), and head back down... We tumbled, tripped, and ran all the way to Hut 3, whose distance from the summit seemed to have grown longer since we ascended: a strange, seemingly impossible physical phenomenon that would repeat itself many, many times during our descent from the summit. We had thought that the hard work was over, but going down ended up the greatest challenge of all!

Tired, hot, and hungry - we arrived at Hut 2, rejoined our porter and packed our bags, and started to plan for the hardest part of the day: getting down the steepest slope on the mountain, preferably without losing any bodies. I spotted one other hiker chewing on TofuDogs...the only tofu product I have laid eyes on since coming to Cameroon...and I nearly asked for one, until I noticed the care and love with which she cradled their package. I suppose I'm not the only crazy, hungry vegetarian in Cameroon! Instead of tofu heaven, I contented myself with the much more ordinary, less exotic cold sandwich of egg and cheese, stole a tiny nap, and strapped on my backpack. We descended at about the same pace it took to get up, but with much more care - if the Up was difficult because we constantly ran the risk of tripping and finding our faces slammed into the rock face directly in front, the Down was difficult because we constantly ran the risk of tripping and finding ourselves slammed into the ground 1 000 m below. The sights that had made me breathless with their beauty the day before, now arrested me with their breath-taking danger. It was crazy; and with bodies as tired and feet as sore as ours were, it was not easy to be as cautious and level-headed as we needed to be. Alla and I slid a few times - at which the guide just looked back, shook his head (probably thinking, "Oh, wobbly Americans!"), offered some help, and kept on dancing down the hill.

By 5 pm, on feet that were now so sensitive that they felt every tiny pebble and rut underneath them, we made it down to the road. There we were, getting into the most comfortable taxi seat I have ever had the pleasure of sitting on - dirty, exhausted, triumphant, and with no scratches other than a twisted knee injury that Alla sustained in the last mile through the rainforest. (But she can still dance Assiko, so how bad can it be?!) We thanked the guide and travel agency, took an unflattering "after" picture, and headed to nearby Limbé...the best place to end a long mountain climb.

A comfortable hotel room, cold shower, quiet restaurant, good sleep-in, fantastic primate zoo (got a huge rock thrown at my head by a "playful" chimp, found a monkey whose white nose looks like a grandfather in Florida who has slathered SPF 45 on his nose), and isolated black sand beach treated us well! By the end of one restful day, you might have thought that our red faces were from lounging on the beach, not from the piercing rays of the summit of West Africa's tallest mountain. Only our giant smiles and severe limps and muscle groans gave us away...



Watch Your Step

I'm Getting Up There!

In the Savannah

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Mt Cameroon: Day 1

Dear all,

Climbing Mt. Cameroon was one of the most intense, most awesome, and most painful things I have ever had the sense or madness to do. Two days after our final descent to strangely flat ground, my legs are still wincing every time I turn in my bed or hobble down two porch steps. There are three experiences that defined and framed this climb for me: long-distance running (and the marathon in particular, now that I'm just dealing with the painful aftermath), camp counseling (finding stores of energy and optimism that otherwise stay hidden), and the reading of the book Into Thin Air (getting into the psyche and decisions of risk-taking, irrational, and highly motivated people).

The runner's mentality kept me physically strong and persevering, and as usual I can't separate the mental from the physical – mind and matter are one, or at least mutually-regulated. I had to be convinced that I would make it up the mountain; else, at any moment during the pitch-black 34° rocky gradient hike, I could have sat down and refused to continue. The camp counselor in me kept popping songs into my head and pushing their words out of my breathless lips, so that the soundtrack of our climb would sound something like this: "Home, home on the range, where the dear and the antelope play! Where seldom is heard, a discouraging word… (Cough, Wheeeze) She'll be comin' 'round the moun'ain when she comes! She'll be… Ah – watch out, avalanche! How I love to go, a-wandering, along the mountain track; and as I go, I love to sing, with my knapsack on my back… Damn, how did this backpack get so heavy? Like a bridge over troubled waters, I WILL LAY ME DOWN…! Hey, only over the next ridge, and we get to rest!" But we made it.

The first day we started hiking at about 2 pm, whereas most groups (as strongly advised) leave in the early morning. We knew that we would have to do some of the climb in the dark, arriving at our sleeping hut by as late at 9 or 10 pm, but after running up Bamenda's biggest hill – we felt very capable. And we were. The hike was by no means easy, and the 34° gradient by no means an exaggeration, but we made good time and arrived by 7:30 pm. If one word could describe the climb that first day, it would be this: BREATHLESS. At first I was breathless because my asthma was acting up (possibly due to the high starting altitude), and I actually feared that I would not be able to summit. But the shallow breathing wore off after an hour or so, and by the time it started to get steeper, I was feeling fine. But the hike remained breathless – this time, because of the incredible beauty of the surroundings. We had passed from the farmland through the rainforest and into the savannah region, where massive sloping hills covered in tall grasses rose from the steamy jungle below. It started to feel cooler because of the time, altitude, and wind exposure; between shivers, I watched the grass carpet below dance like an ocean of yellow and green waves. It got rocky and even steeper, but not to worry – we had to lean forward so much as we ascended, that any fall just pushed us farther up the hill face and toward our hut. When darkness fell and we continued to climb by torchlight, I could no longer be breath-taken by the scenery. Instead, I was breathless from the adventure and excitement of it all; mostly, the absurd confidence and faith we had put in our guide, and our guide and porter likewise in us, to be climbing a difficult and foreign mountain in the dark.

After cozy cups of tea and cold cheese sandwiches in the kitchen hut, we turned in. That night was the WORST night of my life – many bright ideas (all on my part) landed me in the most uncomfortable and sleepless positions I could manage atop a cold mountain. First, I thought that a fleece liner would suffice as the "good, warm sleeping bag" recommended by the guidebook. It did not. Nor does a mosquito net tent, made entirely of mesh, protect much from the wind and cold of a 2 800 m high campsite – most of all, when you choose to sleep outside, unlike all the others, who take refuge from the cold by going inside the hut. (Imagine that!) So I was shivering and cold, in fetal positions on alternating right, stomach, and left sides, for just about the whole night. At one point, I had the sense to pick up my fleece sheet and go inside the emptiest hut, but by this time I was already chilled to the core, and the hut was not crowded or warm enough to put my to sleep. This is when Into Thin Air comes to life in my story... Looking back on that night, I cannot help thinking about the book's fateful 1996 Everest climb that resulted in so many deaths for so many tiny reasons - people too confident to question, too cold to think, too tired to act. For 8 long hours, I was in this strangely alert but immobilized state - feeling every biting cold and windy attack, yet unable to talk myself out of the useless sleeping bag to move to better quarters. There was the fire- and smoke-heated kitchen, with straw matting, where the guides and porters were sleeping; I knew it, but I could not convince myself that it was worth getting out the bag to move to 20 m to their hut. Then there was Alla's tent and warm sleeping bag; of course she would share, but I did not think it was worth the hassle of waking her up. So I suffered the whole night through, and at the end, I feel lucky that I did not do more stupid things. It is really incredible how exhaustion, determination, and altitude can create a potent and dangerous mix.

I emerged from the bag at 4 in the morning, tired and grumpy, but ready for the climb. As soon as camp counselor and cross-country runner took over, I knew I would be fine... And I was! There is the other half (or more) of the story to come, with plenty of summit successes and chimpanzees and salty ocean waves... It turned out to be a bright day atop that Mt. Cameroon!



Alla Above Misty Forest

Bertoua Kids

Friday, December 02, 2005

Fantasta Rasta

International Nutrition & Me

Dear all,

I know what I want to be when I grow up!

A long ride from Bertuoa to Yaoundé gives the traveller plenty of time for thought (not so much sleep, unless you can tolerate having your head pounded against the windows and ceiling as you slumber), and requires that you take advantage of that thinking time as a form of distraction from the road. Our driver was ultra-cautious, lumbering along at no greater than 25 km per hour for most of the trip (perhaps also to protect our interesting cargo: two goats standing on the roof), so I even had extra time to figure out my life…

I would like to be an international nutritionist. I don’t mean that I want to help Romanian celebrities stay thin, or plan protein-rich diets for Thai Olympic athletes; rather, I want to travel the world’s poor and hungry and malnourished places, examine people’s food preparation methods and eating habits, and try to integrate programs/tools/systems that address health problems through food. In Cameroon, I have seen so many crippling medical issues that are the direct results of single vitamin and mineral deficiencies: goiter from lack of iodine, rickets from lack of calcium, anemia from lack of iron, etc. The causes and effects are often easy to define (and their relationships have been proven many times over), but practical solutions to the problems do not come as simply in this part of the world.

I am interested in international nutrition for so many reasons! First, the thing that frustrates me about medicine – the field of work where I have always imagined myself, but which still does not satisfy me – is that most of the practice today is expected to be formulaic and unoriginal. Like I lamented before in this blog, I do not want to practice an art that must be done just the same by my colleague across the street, by a doctor on the other side of the continent, or by the next medical student who buys the same textbook and memorizes the same dosage chart. When doctors try to experiment and work with new methods, there is usually little room or understanding for deviance and error. However, working to find creative solutions that make agricultural, sociological, anthropological, political, and economic sense in different world settings – as well as serving the original health aim – is a kind of medical problem-solving that would be eternally interesting and intellectually challenging. Second, this work would introduce me not only to people’s ulcers and sore toes and skin rashes, but also to their lives and cultures. I love travelling and living with different people, learning about their lifestyles and practices, then taking time to document, discuss, and think about my experiences in a progressive and scientific manner. Finally, it could make a big difference. The successful and widespread introduction of iodine into the local diet (by salt, or some other carrier) would eliminate goiter, and probably boost the depressed hormone levels of many adolescent and post-adolescent Cameroonians. I honestly don’t know why it hasn’t already been done. The development of a drying method or surface that adds value to otherwise nutrient-void dried foods (like manioc and corn), which are eaten every day to no nutritional advantage, could potentially have great impact – could the distribution of iron metal drying sheets, or some process involving the iron-rich red earth, somehow work toward this goal? Good communication about breast-feeding and its benefits might be all it takes to effectively combat rickets and calcium deficiencies…but my experiences in the maternity ward of Hopital Central tell me that there is a long way to go, when even urban mothers seeking professional medical services at delivery, receive piss-poor information on how to nourish their newborns.

Of course, along the way I would get to eat lots of cool and interesting foods; still, I’m thinking that a few bottles of multivitamins might not be a bad idea… Love,


Thursday, December 01, 2005

BONUS! Recipe for Bertoua: Guacamole

Made this with the Bertoua kids, they loved it. Seems to be a tradition whenever Alla visits, and for every morning after we made it, the mothers in the household made a similar avocado salad for our breakfast. For about 10 people…

Ingredients: 5 ripe avocadoes, four plum tomatoes, ½ strong white onion, four garlic cloves, half tsp salt, some pepper, juice of one lime, chopped parsley

1. wash, peel, cut
2. mix
3. eat

Simple. Delicious.

Recipe of the Week: Njama-njama (greens)

I am so fickle?? How can it be that every new dish I try, becomes my all-time favourite? This njama-njama recipe is the best I have tasted, or probably will ever taste (boasts Magne, agrees Alla). What separates this from the rest is the generous use of condiments – lots of tomatoes, onions, garlic, ginger, and spices make it taste soooo yummy. It is often cooked with beef or served with clubs of chicken and meaty cooking oil served on top, but I prefer it plain – surprise! Magne’s recipe from Bertoua…

1. wash and cut up green huckleberry leaves and juicy stem parts into small pieces – spinach will work just fine here
2. boil the leaves until soft, drain, rinse
3. in palm or other oil, fry sliced tomatoes, onions, garlic, ginger, salt, and Maggi cubes
4. turn into the fried condiments the greens, and serve hot

Served with fufu mais (corn cous-cous) or boiled patates (sweet potatoes). I like it best with sweet potatoes.

Getting Ahead (a Head) of My Thoughts

Dear all,

Sitting in the hot afternoon sun with Maman Magne, picking and shelling the beans she had brought in from the fields, I passed several calming hours in a sundrenched Bertoua backyard. It was not hard work, but the job required a new kind of patience and attention to be done properly – the full bean pods were hidden like treasures among a tangled mass of dried leaves, vines, and empty pods, and each one had to be delicately but efficiently pulled out, detached, and shelled. I found the work, mind-numbing and sense-stimulating, to be extraordinarily centering and calming. I was learning to think and feel with my fingers, to respond to the pods and their positions by touch only, to know just how to grasp the long rattling stems without giving the misplaced tap that could send all my sought treasures tumbling to the ground…

As the red beans fell into the pot at my feet, the family’s bounty grew from one small pile to enough for a week of meals: a red mountain! Very occasionally, two or three black beans would jump from the cracked pod in my fingers, and tumble like misfits onto the sea of their maroon cousins. In these moments, I thought about ninth grade biology class - Mendel and his green or yellow, round or wrinkled, tall or short peas, and how he might have been shelling peas for lunch one day when the thought occurred to him, “My, aren’t these wrinkled yellow peas so rare! I wonder why…?” Now sitting on a little stool in the isolated East Province of Cameroon, far from my professors and textbooks but six years down the road from freshman high school biology and over a century after Mendel’s thought, I could provide my own answer.

To enjoy so many lives and opportunities at once – like learning to think with my hands so my fingers can communicate delicately with temperamental beans, while reliving and applying biology lessons to explain bean genetics and phenotypic differences – has been my greatest satisfaction. Although I haven’t yet a plan for “living” Cameroon next semester (will I join a French-speaking club? frequent the West African market? keep in touch with friends looking for scholarship money for study abroad? give presentations about my experiences, scientific and sociological?), I know that this life experience has already put an indelible mark on my mind. Along with the pagne cloths and kitchen recipes I bring home, will be a way of thinking and understanding that I did not before possess. …And one day, soon perhaps, I will be sitting in a reproductive biology class wondering exactly how sperm cells fight and push to get to the egg – when a vivid memory of Yaoundé traffic will descend upon me, bright yellow cars with obnoxious horns colliding and clogging around large, cumbersome roundabouts – and life will make sense!

To the sacred sperm, traffic jams, beans, biology lessons, and revelations of this life – with love,


Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Giving Thanks for Cultural Differences, and a Great Family in Bertoua

Dear all,

My life = non-stop activity, during and since my trip to Dschang, Bamenda, and Bafoussam. In Dschang I stayed with Thomas and Therese and fell in love, all over again, with their family. In Bamenda we passed the day in the market, and in Bafoussam spent time with Raymond's very cool family and at the hairdresser's, getting rasta woven in for 6 hours. Everyone asked me afterwad if my head was paining from the braids, to which I replied - Certainly not, though my butt and back are really hurting! The woman who did my hair was definitely skilled, but I doubt that she ever attracted customers looking for a soft touch and relaxing experience; I felt that my hair was being pulled out, along with my head and neck, for the entire 6 hours. But pain is beauty, right? And since the rasta actually look quite good, I have a whole new respect for those people who endure so much to look nice every day. I want to get one more fresh set of rasta put in just before leaving, so that they will last some time in the States, but beyond that - I don't think that I possess the pain threshold, the patience, or the pockets for constant and well-kempt beauty!

Estelle, Raymond, and I got back from Bafoussam on Friday afternoon, and then we spent my darling Estelle's remaining few hours in Yaounde seeking out her last craved meal of spicy beans, buying gifts at the Maché Artisanale, saying the various obligatory "goodbye"s around town, and throwing a little intimate party in Alla's apartment. We bought fruit, cake, ice cream, and cheese for the occasion, and surely sent home all of Estelle's Cameroonian friends with dairy overload and indigestion. A convoy of cars and friends took her to the airport, and Zigoto - a successful actor and aspiring director/producer in Cameroon, and one of our friends - knew the police and managed to get four of us through security to see Estelle to the gate. It was fantastic to see Zigoto (picture wild grin, bright red shirt, box haircut, and long beaded rat-tail) finger-snapping the passport stamper through his bullet-proof plastic desk shield, assuming rigid "on guard" poses for the entrance security men, and sweet-talking the stoic elder guards with, "Papa, would you snap a photo of us? Thank you so much, you will do such a great job! Wow, that's sooooo good!!!" Zigoto is really good at this game. Seeing Estelle leave was really difficult, but I know that we made big enough fools of ourselves at the airport to keep us laughing (not crying), and that we will keep in touch. I would like to travel to Sweden in the Spring, and see Estelle and Raymond in their "other" milieu. Going from this place of disorder to one of the most ordered countries in the world...should be interesting!

The next day, we hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for friends and family at Josh's apartment. Josh, Alla, Sadatou, and I worked for several hours beforehand (Josh since the morning, the rest of us since the afternoon) to prepare a rather traditional meal of turkey and stuffing, stuffed tomatoes, gespacho, green beans, mashed potatoes, cabbage salad (salade de chou), sweet potato pie, plantain pie, and fruit salad. We knew that it was going to be a new meal for most, but we hoped that cultural bridges like ample servings of "33" beer, and Cameroon's carniverous nature combined with a giant turkey, would ease the differences. We were right, to some extent. People came together and seemed to have a good time talking - what was especially cool was the diversity of the group, which included my entire host family, Josh's coworkers from the UN office, a famous actor, the Prime Minister's son, international students, local university students, and one or two poor and unemployed friends. Food was served for several hours, and people seemed to have many different experiences eating: the familiar potatoes, sweet potatoes, and green beans were enjoyed by all; the gespacho was found to be strangely different from tomato sauce (why serve it cold? why does it taste like liquid salad?), and several bowls were sent back to be devoured by the American kitchen workers; the Cameroonian turkey, reportedly chewy and boney and very stressed, was not the satisfying meat we needed it to be (and I'm sure no Cameroonian guest can understand why Americans insist on gamey turkey, not plump chicken, every year); but my pies were found to be quite tasty and appreciated (dependable dessert); and the fruit salad was, as always, an easy hit. With the confusion and newness of it all, on a holiday that is built around family and home and familiarity, it did not feel like Thanksgiving for the longest time... It was not until the very end, as the last guests were leaving, that one man said everything that needed to be said: "Your meal was, but nice. I could not eat it all, but it was interesting. Oh, and - Happy Thanksgiving!" At that moment, I felt a totally unexpected rush of joy. Josh had the same feeling - we laughed, clapped, and thanked him profusely. Finally, it was Thanksgiving; that was all the cultural bridging we needed.

Sunday morning, Alla and I departed for Bertoua. The road and ride were difficult, but not as bad as they could have been - it had rained the day before, so the dust was settled and did not cover us; our bus did not break down; and I was so tired from cooking and cleaning that I slept even through the most impossibly bumpy parts. Her family here, where she stayed for one month two years ago while completing her independent study project for the School for International Training, is fantastic. The 5 children are amazing, fun, friendly, gorgeous, smart, songful, ... The grandmother and mothers (it's a 3-generation household) are also beautiful people - strong and supportive and very hard-working. It seems that most of the men in the family have either died or run off, so the grnadmother now heads a household comprised of her daughters and all of their kids. Some of the daughters have died, but their orphan children are integrated into the family like all the others. Living quarters seem to be generally separated by family (each daughter sleeps with her offspring), but everyone eats and plays and studies together. Alla and I agree that this is the kind of house that could turn someone into a real, level-headed, ardent feminist.

I have a few new favorite activites since coming to Bertoua. At the market I negotiated cloth prices like a real Cameroonian (vendors, exasperated, tell me that I've really spent too much time here), and talked down the price of an item from 3 500 CFA to 1 000 CFA. At a restaurant, I revelled in the absurdity of menu-ordering in Cameroon. (Nothing that you ever want is on the menu: You ask what's available, they say everything; you ask for something, they say you can't have it. Yesterday I tried to order vegetable soup, made without the fish, and the waitress went to the back to run the idea by the cook. She came back grinning - Yes, we can make it for you. I was pleased - Okay, I'll have it. She cocked her head - But no, we can't make it. I was confused - But why not? She explained, obviously, as she twirled her hair - Um, we don't have the vegetables. Oh, right, of course.) In the hot sun of yesterday afternoon, I enjoyed a MOST refreshing bucket bath with water that had been warmed by the sun as it dripped from the leaky tap during the day; it was really awesome, and I think that it's unnatural how much I enjoy cold bucket baths! Then we made guacamole with the kids, and the littlest, pertually sick girl ate half the pot...finally, a food she can eat! If only she could move to Mexico, she'd be a lot healthier.

I find it interesting and nice, how many homes I have created here for myself. There is the original home with Thomas and Therese, whence I started and to which I will always return, in this Cameroon universe. Then there are the many homes of Yaounde - the first, from which I rebelled and ran away; the second, with Ousman and Habiba, where I have settled down but still like to move in and out freely; and the third, my home-away-from-home, at the apartments of Alla and Estelle, where I find independence and escape and so many slumber parties. Then there are the homes scattered throughout the country - in Bafoussam, I now have Raymond's family; in Bertoua, there is Alla's family; and maybe more to come? I don't know if this is a result of Cameroon's extended family structure, generous and welcoming culture, or the habitual "mother-sister-father-brother" name-giving - but I think that universally, the greatest gift of travel is that living a vagrant life actually lets you settle more easily. The farther you move away from home, the more you can feel at home.

But above all, travel has brought me closer to the original, ORIGINAL home - not the one that started my journey through the Cameroon universe, but the one that is at the center of my Whole universe. When I heard that "Happy Thanksgiving!" and felt that unexpected rush of joy, I realized one thing: No, I have not become a zealous patriot or fan of American history retellings; but I do miss and cherish my family, friends, and life at home. How can I even express this love??? Ah yes, of course... I would give up anything - even sacrifice cold morning bucket baths, and endure hot steamy showers for the rest of my life - to return one day to HOME. Really, I would!

But until that time comes (and very soon, actually), I will keep enjoying this life and feeling at home in my new homes-away-from-home. Love,



Dear all,

Look at Alla's blog - I either never get enough time, can't find a USB port, or have a really crappy Internet connection, so pictures are taking a while to get loaded these days. Picture-sharing, then, must be the way of the present and immediate future!



BONUS! Recipe for an Equitorial Thanksgiving: Tarte de plantain/patate (plantain:sweet potato pie)

This is the very successful dish we made for Thanksgiving dessert. It's actually just a recipe copied from the Internet (someone's modified Joy of Cooking recipe), with plantains substituted (if you like) for sweet potatoes. Still, it had some personal and Cameroonian can't buy pie crusts here, so I bought cookies and stomped on the bag to make crumbs for a crust; the oven has no temperature measure, so we gagued heat by color on the dial; and nothing was measured, so I'm sure everyone's products will taste different. Here goes, for one pie...

1. get ginger or graham or plain vanilla cookies, about .35 kg, and crush them
2. in the bottom of pan, mush cookie crumbs and two eggs and a slab of butter together...line the bottom of the pan with the mixture
3. bake for about 10 minutes at 425°F (very red), until mostly cooked - slightly moist and still soft

1. peel, cut, and boil sweet potatoes or plantains until soft and yellow
2. drain, mash
3. in a blender or with your well-washed hands, combine about 2 cups of boiled mash, .75 cps evaporated milk, .75 cps brown sugar, .25 cps baking flour, 1 tsp. vanilla, .5 tsp salt, 2 eggs, and a few pinces of spices (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, etc).
4. pour mixture into pan with crust at bottom, top with cookie crumbs, and put in oven
5. bake at 425°F (very red) for 10 minutes, then at 350°F (rather red) for about another 50 minutes

Serve with ridiculously expensive whipped cream (the only thing I have let myself buy, which is more expensive here than in the States), some chestnut/vanilla topping that I found on sale at the Supermarket (and bought, because on sale, to counterbalance the many dollars I was wasting on the whipped cream), and fruit salad. SO good.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Recipe of the Week: Cornchof (corn and beans)

One of my favorite dishes - very hard to find in Yaounde, so worthy of a mad (and generally fruitful) search whenever I'm in Bamenda or Bafoussam. When I'm in Dschang, no search is necessary; Therese already knows how I feel about cornchof, and she makes it even without special request. The corn is of a prep method that I have not seen outside of Cameroon, but maybe you can find it in speciality grocery stores...the kernels are dehydrated like space food - white, light, and crunchy. They are not popcorn kernels, but maybe sun-dried? Here is her recipe.

1. boil dried corn kernels, with cinders (or other kernel skin-separating agent) in the water, for about 1 hour.
2. drain and rinse the corn, remove the skins.
3. reboil the corn kernels, in plain water, for another hour.
4. add black beans to the water, and cook until beans are done.
5. drain the corn and bean mix, then fry with condiments: oil, fried tomatoes and onion and garlic, ginger, basil, salt, and Maggi cubes.

The final mix is chunky, with beans well-done but intact, and corn solid and a little chewy. The mix of textures makes this food fun to eat, and the many spices give it a delicious flavor!

Death, Defying and Denying

Dear all,

Before we left, Alla told me that our bus ride to Bertoua, capital town of the East Province, would make me feel like I was really in AFRICA. For the 9 hours that we bumped along the red dirt path, the only accesss road to what should be a major destination, I began to understand. Looking past the sidelined buses whose fearless drivers had gotten themselves trapped in the mud, and the occasional overturned vehicle, I could appreciate the scenery that has been preserved by inaccessibility. I saw glistening pools of blue-blue water, set among lush marshland patches of banana trees, tall grasses, and (I'm sure) hidden rhinoceri and monkeys. In the more forested areas, we passed dark wet enclaves with black water creeks, and little naked boys setting off in their pirogues for a day of fishing and bathing. The houses we passed are beautifully constructed, with mesh-like walls built from a wooden pole criss-coss packed with mud. The houses look like baskets, and I'm sure they function like them, too: fill one with grains, and it will hold them; fill one with water, and it will all fall through. Luckily, it does not rain much during the dry season, and while travelers suffer from dust, the houses stand relatively sturdy. The rainy season must be difficult, though - with travelers being swallowed by thick, uneven mud in front of crumbling basket abodes.

I was especially intrigued by the fragile houses, in whose front yards sat gravestones that are, by comparison, very solid in their molded concrete hardness. The gravestones are chunky and unmoving, propped upright for all to see and notice. In their permanence they seem to have become central figures in the landscape, and so are used for all sorts of activities: sitting, drying clothes, and sunning vegetables for the market. I wondered if this contrast between temporary living quarters and the dependability of death could somehow represent an attitude of the people...not only an reminder, but really an embrace, of the inevitable passing of life. Given the reckless driving on city and country roads, the struggles of daily survival in a poor country, and the strength of religious belief throughout the population, the gravestones seemed a reasonable symbol of the acceptance and perceived comfort or "escape" of death in Cameroon.

I asked my newly-made friend on the bus - a struggling hairdresser from Douala with a newborn baby, a family in Yaounde, and a lover in Bertoua - if she was afraid of dying. Is death something you wait for, or something you avoid? I expected her answer, perhaps supported by religious justifications or economic explanations, to confirm my theory; but instead she looked at me, the mad social scientist, with a look of total confusion. "I'm terrified of death, like everyone else!" she said. Clutching her baby, she checked my sanity and asked, "Aren't you??"

As all my elegant and glorified ideas came crashing down, I realized that endings are always sad - whether you live in a basket and travel 9 hours on death-defying roads to sell the manioc dried over your late husband's grave, or whether you sleep-in on a waterbed and run a profitable business from your high-speed Internet connection at home. The poor but happy and generous family with whom I'm staying shows that survival is not always a resented struggle, and that people are not so selfish as to wait for the life escape that would separate them from dependent children and loving friends. The undiminished presence of death here, then, is not the result of a different attitude, but rather simply of a harder and more honest life. People don't have the luxury - the place, the time, or the money - of hiding that which causes fear.

To love and to life,


Saturday, November 26, 2005

Saying Goodbye to Estelle at Airport!

Recipe of the Week : Salade de chou (cabbage salad)

This is a beautifully simple and refreshing meal - served to me on a silver platter, breakfast-lunch-dinner, in Bafoussam. Apparently, also a very vegetarian dish! Here is how it’s made for one cabbage:

1. Remove outer cabbage leaves and mince inner part
2. Rinse the leaves with boiling water, to flash-cook them a bit
3. Prepare a sauce: mix 8 or more tbsp lemon juice, 6 tbsp oil, 1 or 2 sugar cubes, and some salt
4. Slice onion thin, soak in sauce for a few minutes
5. Pour onions and sauce over cabbage, serve

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Recipe of Last Week: Pimon (hot pepper)

Pimon is the best spice ever; I am addicted. Recipes for pimon sauce vary from kitchen to kitchen, but this one (from Miranda, Estelle's neighbor) is particularly flavorful. Modify and multiply as you wish...

Ingredients: 3 chillies (pimon, or other small hot pepper); 5 plum tomatoes; 1/2 onion; 1/2 head garlic; a little grated ginger; sugar and salt; 1 or 2 Maggi tomate cubes

1) mix chopped chillies, tomatoes, onion, garlic, and ginger
2) blend it all in a processor
3) fry the mixture in a pan with oil
4) add sugar, salt, and crumbled Maggi cubes to taste, during frying
5) let cool, can store in fridge and serve in a bowl for self-serve at the table

The taste is sweet and fruity, with a delicious spicy kick at the end.

Catching Up in Cameroon

Dear all,

The conference is over - and I feel as though I've completed the final sprint, smiling madly and not sleeping all along the way, to now lie collapsed but triumphant over the finish line. My work always ended around midnight or later, long after Habiba closes the gate with lock and key at ten o'clock (and I don't have a key), so I passed the week nights at Alla's or Estelle's. It was great fun to have slumber parties every night, and to truly create a second nest for myself here in Yaounde...but I didn't sleep so much. I was back at work, rearranging booths and chairs and registering presentations, by 7 in the morning every day.
Advantages of this set-up: both the night and day guards became my friends; I didn't use any phone credits because no stores were ever open when I was out, and I could not recharge my phone for a whole week; I picked up lots of cool discarded decorations from the booths, which my families here have loved; I learned that one can survive on coffee break leftovers (that is, the insides of chocolate croissants) for about five days, before getting a stomach ache; and coffee actually tastes pretty good, with enough milk and sugar.
Disadvantages: I schlepped at least 3 bags full of clothes and fruit and books everywhere I went; I did not sleep; and I don't know if I can enjoy my previous "leisurely" runs up the the Palais des Congres as much as I used to.
In any case, I left Palais des Congres on the final day feeling like I had really ocntributed to an important effort, and worked hard as HELL and effectively, and now I can relax! It is time to sleep, pack light, eat better food, enjoy the outdoors, smile without strain, and generally have the OTHER part of the Cameroon experience - the traveling, the resting, the hiking, the shopping, the talking, the resting, the sleeping, the resting, the sleeping, the blogging, etc.

So here is a quick catch-up plan for the rest of my time here:

Traveling - I'm now in Dschang with Thomas and Therese and kids, loving everything about this original "home" of mine. It feels so comfortable, and even in my tiredness, I smile at the cocks' early morning crows and the cool morning bucket baths. Being here in the mountains is so refreshing, and the family is equally lovely... The kids have been kept busy braiding my hair and playing with the sparkly conference decorations I brought, and I have stayed busy resting the shaded chairs outside, eating delicious tiny bananas, having a dress made at the tailor, strolling through the market, and planning the next few weeks. Tomorrow Alla (staying here with a Peace Corps friend) and I leave Dschang for Bafoussam, where we will meet Estelle and her friend Raymond, whose family will lodge us for a night. Then back to Yaounde...and Estelle leaves on Friday! A little party is being palnned for her last night, and we are busy collecting African clothes and priceless ABIBAS and NIKKE gear for her. Next week I will travel to Bertoua in the East Province (rainforest area) to meet Alla's homestay family, and possibly travel up north afterwards, if I can find a good travel companion. Somewhere between the start of December and when my family comes (yayyyyyyyyyy, i love you!!!), I will spend a weekend night in Douala with Ousman, Josh, and Alla, and then Alla and I will go on to Buea and Limbe to climb Mt. Cameroon.

Thanksgiving - Happy Thanksgiving to you all! We are planning a cross-cultural dinner for this Saturday - Josh, the main host and planner; Alla and myself, the cultural consultants and assistant cooks; and all of our Cameroonian friends and families, the guests of honor. We will have turkey and stuffing and green beans and mashed potatoes, as well as plantain pie, mango ginger smoothies, fufu mais,
and a kick-ass fruit salad.

Recipes of the Week - Cooks, hold your ladles and whisks ready, cause I'm coming back with more soon! I will perfect a cornchof recipe tonight with Therese, and post that soon. I will see what else is left in my little book...but give me a minute, unless you want to know how to excavate pain-au-chocolate (chocolate croissants) and mix a nice cup of cafe-au-lait (coffe and milk, very complicated).

Loving you very much,


Saturday, November 19, 2005

Our Conference Team: The Ladies of the Secretariat

Friday, November 18, 2005

Hallelujah, WORK!

Dear all,

My, hasn’t it been a long time since we talked? About a week, in fact - a week since I have slept for 8 or more hours, woken up after sunrise, run or strolled leisurely, eaten a hot meal, played with my home-stay sisters, or been idle/bored/frustrated/underutilized (feelings I had strongly associated with work here). This malaria conference has been my LIFE! Although I’m learning very little about malaria nets or insecticide treatments, and I have no idea if the host or parasite genome is a better subject of vaccine research…there is no time to sit and listen to a scientific session…my education in conferences, event organization, and crowd behavior is really taking off.

Work before this week was, at the best, reasonably interesting. Lab research moved slowly and always seemed to face the most basic but disruptive impediments: when we enjoyed a blessed day of uninterrupted electrical power, the taps ran dry; when we successfully excavated ice-encrusted reagents from the bottoms of old freezers, there were no machines with which to analyze the products. It was very frustrating. I found it equally difficult to get involved, satisfyingly, in conference planning. With no file folders (not a single file cabinet in the whole center!) or computer networking, data was difficult to access unless you recorded it yourself. My assigned tasks were generally short-term and specific, which I completed without gaining any greater familiarity with the conference organization or laying claim to a future responsibility in the upcoming events. Sure - I discouraged my Swiss net company from exploding fireworks from the roof of the Palais des Congres (PdC) center, and I did a stellar job of responding to participant emails regarding Yaounde weather and proper conference attire - but somehow, despite all that fabulous work, I felt replaceable and unchallenged.

But hallelujah, things have changed! So my rejoicing does confirm that I am an incurable workaholic - but so be it. I am. I love that I am productive and effective here - and for the first time, it feels like my coworkers understand all that I’ve been trying to do. I used to plead for work, saying “Collins, what can I do? Lana, let me be at your service! Palmer, I am free fro the next 2 hours. If any of you has work for me to do, please say so - I would love to do something!!!” But I don’t plead for work anymore - for better of for worse, the involvement of crowds makes it clear what things need to get done and when systems need to be improved, and I can see that they get done on my own initiative. I may not have answers to every question, but I know where to find them - and showing that confidence with a smile, even when ministers are giving unexpected speeches that severely disrupt presentation programs, or there are no projectors in any presentation rooms 5 minutes before session beginnings, is as important and necessary as the eventual answer itself.

Besides all of the managing/organizational/bull-shitting skills that I’m honing, I have met some really cool people. Shuffling through the badges the night before the conference, putting 1 500 names into alphabetical order, I stayed interested by telling myself one thing: literally, I’m holding the world in my hands! It was really cool to see the names representing 64 countries that would be coming together here in Cameroon, and with whom I could get to interact. Not only did I enjoy the 5-part last names from Germany (van der Gees van Naters) and the creative combinations from Denmark (Edgewatt Dorcas), but I looked forward to meeting some of them in person. I did, and now have business cards from around the world, where people doing really interesting and varied work on malaria, in case I want to travel again for the sme kind of research...

Palais des Congres is a little wacky, as far as national convention centers go... Caterers serve (and people drink) beer with breakfast, lunch, and dinner; Guinness bottles but not tea/coffee cups are allowed into the scientific sessions; participants stroll the halls with cigarettes and leave smoke trails among posters and sponsor tents; the Ministry of Tourism displays ivory carvings at its booth; and we have one phone-one fax machine-one copier-two printers with which to run the entire conference. But our scientific program is riveting, our conference bags our high quality and sharp-looking, we all are still smiling at each impossible question, ...and I think that this conference will be something to be proud of.



You should all check out the press releases on the conference - I know that the BBC and NYT wrote articles recently, and there have been tons of reports and interviews on the news's weird to think that I'm relaxing at home, after a long day's work, and then hear my boss's voice booming from the television set. Ahhh! But do some searches online, which I haven't had time to do, and see what there is. It will be under the Multilateral Initiative on Malaria Conference, or else mis-named the Roll Back Malaria Conference, 13-18 November.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

No Selling Here!?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A Horse!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

View of Horses from Women's Side of Sabga S'Allah Horse Jumping Show

In the Sabga Field

Finally, Found Some Cameroonian Cheese! Was a bit too enthusiastic, bought myself quite a hunka-chunka...

Beautiful Dishes for Show in a Sabga House - I thought it was a store and tried to buy some from the grandmother!

Totally Sabga-fied

Monday, November 14, 2005

Strange Stranger - Accordian Man Came to Visit for S'Allah, Muslim Open-House Day

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Yaounde, Preparing S'Allah (End of Ramadan) Feast

A Beautiful (though politically incorrect) View, Bamenda

Me and Alla in Bamenda, the high point of our hike

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Some Funny Notes & Quotes...To Be Continued

Dear all,

I tried to put chocolate sauce on my bananas and ice cream for dessert – but Habiba said “No! Chocolate is only for breakfast, Mara.” …Cameroon’s totally lovable, complete and wholesome breakfast.

Francis, Estelle’s NGO boss, took us to Assiko class one day. The traffic was thick and we were late; upon reaching the worst traffic jam of the night, Francis took one look and sighed: “Ah, I’m sorry girls. I simply cannot support this traffic.” He pulled out of the right and calmly weaved through the slow-moving (but less thick) opposing traffic, then pulled into the first position in front of the jam, and patiently waited for the light to change. …We made it to Assiko unbruised, on time, and with a new scale by which to measure NYC’s relatively lawful drivers.

Ousman says to Josh, concerning the fridge he plans to buy from him (Ousman’s first fridge purchase): “Your fridge is the one that makes me love fridges. Whenever I open your fridge, it is very nice to me.”

Loving and laughing, at least outside of work,


A Sabga Story

Dear all,

***I'm running out of time and computer savvy, but currently the Sabga pictures are uploading onto Ofoto (link on the side), and the Bamenda pictures are uploading somewhere onto this blog site (???). I hope it works! The less time-sensitive pictures are coming soon, in some form, somewhere.***

A weekend in Sabga, even if rushed between early morning departures and late night buses home, is as refreshing and relaxing as possible. We began with a terrific road trip through the mountains and fresh air between Yaoundé and Bamenda – all along the road were little markets, grassy mountains, beautiful houses (could have sworn I was in suburban Iowa), and their well-constructed ditches. I realized that I had really adapted to Yaoundé's shabby roadsides when I started complimenting the clean rock-lined ditches… "Wow, that is a really nice ditch!" My friends might have laughed, but I could not have been more serious. The ride was made more interesting by Ousman's very quotable conversation, a discussion on international swearing terms, and my and Alla's whispered discussions of Habiba's failed struggle for permission to join the Sabga trip. Ousman complained out loud about his wife's last-minute (and therefore short-sighted) request to come; we gently explained her actions to the three men in the car, and silently lamented her absence and oppression.

The markets were ridiculously cheap, and I think it must be combination of Yaoundé's price inflation and the vendors' desperation. Josh had insisted that I insist upon having cabbage and fufu made for me – a veggie's dream dish, he said – so we bought cabbage along the way. Expecting a bucket of 4 large cabbage heads to be around 2 000 CFA (4 USD), as it would be in the city, we instantly took cabbage from the first vendor who offered her bucket for 300 CFA ( 0.60 USD). Later on, when a small ragged girl offered her bucketload for 150 CFA, we could not possibly feel buyer's remorse – passing up dirtier-cheap cabbages for dirt-cheap cabbages! In Bamenda, Alla and I had a delicious roadside lunch of corn chof (one of my favorite dishes – recipe forthcoming) for 100 CFA ( 0.20 USD) apiece. It is crazy that now I'm back in the city, I feel hurt having to give more than two small coins for a filling meal…

But what am I saying ? Let's get on to Sabga ! The village is situated in the hills, nestled between the grassy highlands (cattle grazing territory) and the cool, misty lowlands (Bamenda). The dominant natural colors are serene: soft green from the horizon-to-horizon grass carpet, light grayish blues in the valleys shadowed by encircling mountains, and yellow-red dirt paths carved deep into the hills. The homes in Sabga appear to all be well-kept and comfortable – the mornings find women and little children sweeping their dirt courtyards (it actually works to sweep the dirt from the dirt!) to maintain clean and open compounds, and the evenings find every house alight, with abundant food on the table and large groups (usually men, plus the occasional female American visitors) eating together. Alla and I took on Muslim names, given by Ousman's cousin - Alla became Suraiya by necessity, and I accepted (but forgot the use) the name Subado. Suraiya means "brave and open-minded woman"; Subado means "the choice" or "the chosen one" - I thought both were nice compliments! We donned Muslim dress and veils, played with the kids, chilled in the very relaxed (but exclusive) salons of the village royal families and holy men, and generally were treated like honored guests. The experience, for this reason, was both privileged and limited. I got to sit next to the lami-do (religious leader, the mayor-equivalent of Sabga) and dine with the royal family (Ousman and all his brothers)...but had to sneak out of bed early in the morning just to see the women in their kitchens and to learn about the cabbage-cooking process and the kids' schooling.

The end-of-Ramadan fete, S'allah, lasts several long days in Sabga. The town youth gather in a giant huddle from about 10 in the morning til midnight, with drums sending out a strong beat from the center and shoulders bobbing up and down in the crowd all around. The dance is simple and repetitive - just that, shoulder shrugs up and down and side to side - but tiring after a few minutes. I don't know how they last so long! But I suppose it all means something different to them - this is the Muslim village youth's social event of the year, the time to meet sweethearts and couple off in the darker hours of the festival. Some of the young men sneak alcohol into the center drumming circle, and the pairing off reminded me strangely, vividly, of the frat parties at school. So the venue and the event were a cultural excursion, but the results are the same the world around... Other activities included a very decorative horse show that lasted about 4 hours (see photos of the beautifully adorned horses, jumping and dancing to the drum and flute music - an official event), many hours of dining and wining (I caught several of the royal men drinking wine and Guinness beer at night - not so official or holy, ha!), and a hike up the mountain to see the resident missionary Pastor - his extremely low success rate, of a handful of Muslim-to-Christian converts in the past 15 years' work, suggests that he stays as much for the scenery as he does to spread G-d's word. I don't blame him.

I think that I have also fallen in love, somewhat, with Fulani (Muslim, Cameroonian Highlands, cattle herding) culture. The Fulani are a beautiful people - tall, lean, caramel color, with gorgeous features (prominent noses, deep lines around the elders' eyes, bright and large eyes) - dressed in the the flowingest, simplest, most elegant clothes. Their best posture is one of total comfort - slouched on a couch, knees bent under the chin or under the tush, feet tucked into the chair's armrest or placed on a low stool in front. They eat delicious and simple foods, all throughout the day, and have clean mountain water to drink. They ride horses everywhere, treat their cattle like babies, and have housepets that look better-fed and -groomed than the any I have seen in the city (even Yaoundé kittens are not cute, for the street life is not kind to their furry selves). Their exclusive gatherings find men perched upon knees and feet, curled up on their comfortable chaises - simply being chill and watching TV for hours, discussing local rumors and events, planning for the next day of celebration, and drinking sweet tea with honey. (Bamenda makes the best honey around - white as snow and thick as molasses, and Sabga produces fresh milk, creamy yogurt, and salty cheese through a Land'o'Lakes cooperative. Truly, this is the Land of Milk and Honey!!!)

Alla and I left Sabga early Monday morning to pass the day in Bamenda. We enjoyed the markets a little too much, for the cheap prices and non-aggressive vendors actually made us buy more than we ordinarily would. I got fabric, dresses made, painted dishes, posters, ... the only thing that did not tempt me were the live crickets, being sold for fried consumption. We then climbed a mountain, on a whim, to see the waterfall up on high - the shopping bags full of dresses and trays and posters were a little ridiculous, but we did it incredibly fast, and enjoyed a spectacular view and cool breeze on top. The night bus ride home was uneventful (though not terribly comfortable, I at least heard some good music by Grace Decca), and I made it to work on time two hours after arrival. A little disheveled, but well-rested and without regret. I'd go back to Sabga and Bamenda in five minutes, if you asked me to pack my bags! Love,


Cyber Escape

Dear all,

Work is driving me NUTS!!!! - more on that this afternoon - so I'm cutting out early today to bury myself in the cyberworld...will finally get some pictures, and a few words about our incredible Sabga & Bamenda weekend, online.

So check back soon for more pictures - Sabga is really beautiful! Love,


Recipe of the Week: Fufu mais (corn cous-cous) et choux (cabbage)

Fufu is the absolute staple food here – bland and therefore very compatible, quick to make, a little messy to eat, and filling. You will find fufu tasting pretty much the same from modest village kitchens to fancy metropolitan restaurants, though prep methods differ vastly. Chez Thérese, the process is day-long and laborious: corn grinding, flour sifting, and multiple stages of boiling. Chez Habiba, the process is quite simple and takes place nearly every night; we ate fufu mais with okra or other leaf (and meat) sauces nearly every night duing Ramadan, as a filling second dinner. The final product is smooth and dough-like, a little dry but slightly sticky still…diners scoop bit-size pieces of fufu from their fufu rolls between right hand thumb and fingers, then dip in sauce and consume. Here is Habiba's method:

1. sift corn flour, i'm guessing about 1 cup per person
2. gently boil corn flour while adding water, stirring constantly, to mushy but smooth (well-mixed) consistency
3. stop adding water, but keep on heat, while stirring becomes more vigorous…this will become difficult, but keep mixing the fufu until sticky (like cookie dough)
4. scoop out a large fist-size serving, and plop into flexible plastic bowl with wet interior (dip bowl in water immediately before putting fufu, to stop dough from sticking to sides)
5. with bowl cradled in both hands, shake the fufu around so the dough rolls along the edges of the bowl, and becomes a smooth roll
6. dump rolled fufu « boule » into container, cover, and repeat steps 4 through 6 for rest of fufu. one boule per person is usually enough. boules can be stored together; they will not stick too much.

Chou is the thickest of many sauces I have seen eaten with fufu. I prefer this to the liquid okra and other green leaf sauces, because it is solid and less messy. You can also get more chou than sauce in your hand with each scoop of fufu, which makes each bite more interesting in flavor. This dish was given to me in Sabga – delicious, and vegetarian! Two large green cabbages makes enough for about 10 people, I'm guessing again…

1. remove cabbage outer (dirty) leaves, then mince inside cabbage
2. boil in water til soft, then remove, drain, and rinse
3. in the bottom of a large round pot, sauté tomatoes, onions, garlic, and 1 or 2 Maggi vegetable stock cubes in about 2 or 3 cups of oil
4. dump in cooked cabbage, no added water, and stir. add salt to taste. should be delicious.

Serve one boule and scoop or two of cabbage to each diner. Most Cameroonians take about one scoop of cabbage to one boule, and are satisfied; I take three or four scoops of cabbage to half a boule, and I am full.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Picture This: Ronald McDonald's Mom

Dear all,

It is a funny thing to be stuck between cultures - enjoying my ability to fully embrace the surrounding people and environment, and then silently judging every experience, measuring every cost, and processing every conversation within the cultural constructs I have imported from home. This conflict is presenting itself, with increasing frequency and volume (just to clarify: yes, we're speaking of the voices in my head...), around the questions of body and food. I am invited to eat dinner, on a house visit just after finishing a very large dinner at home, and the hosts bring out enormous plates of rice and sauce and cake - I cannot say NOOOO!. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner alike - any meal is likely to be repeated at least once a day, in heaping quantities, and with equally large expectations and cooking egos at stake. Food is at the center of all social activities in Cameroon, because (thankfully) it is one thing that they have in abundance, and their cuisine is really a spectacular representative for this country and culture. But despite the wonderful bounty, I am recently resenting the food pressures - not because anything has changed in the world, but because of how I see myself in the mirror.

Over dinner the other night, the family remarked pleasantly - proudly - that my face was quite shiny and wide. "Hey Mara, you look great!" "Oh shit," I thought, "what am I supposed to say to that? America wants to cry; Cameroon is celebrating; I am so totally confused." With a smile and a laugh, I explained that being fat in America is actually not such a compliment - it is a national crisis. But Ousman, being the sensitive new-age guy that he is, set me straight. He was even kind enough to put it in American cultural terms:
"Now you see, Mara, there are two kinds of fat. There is healthy good-looking fat, that's what you are; and there is bad fat. Even if you ate Mac-Donald's Mom, you would not fat like that! Do you know Mac-Donald's Mom?! Do you know what she look like??! You cannot fat like that - no, even if you eat Mac-Donald's Mom, you will not fat like that! Me too, I will not fat like that. In America, I eat Mac-Donald's SOOO much - whoo, I really get big! - but I never fat like that. You too. ... Now, have some more fried plantains..."

What makes it all the more difficult is that I have no particular loyalty to either culture's body ideal - Cameroon's curves or America's slender sticks - yet I feel pressure to live up to these conflicting standards now imposed from all over the globe... I know that if the ideals were of my own creation, I might feel some acceptance and understanding, and feel good about wanting to attain/maintain a certain body type; but since they are not, I only feel resentment...I am suffering from imposed forces that I cannot control or change. The solution is clear: We must decide for ourselves what we want, what is important, and how we will measure the enjoyment in our lives...and then keep those goals always close, unable to be touched by the many cultures and environments through which we move. I am clearly still forming the ideals to hold myself to, and looking for the right mirror to look into, but with time...I am sure that it will come. In my juggling act of cultures' compliments and criticisms, with heaping platters of fried plantains thrown in for an added challenge, I will soon have to find my own rhythm. If not, it will all tumble down...and I could not stand to waste so many plantains!

On a more troubling note, I still don't know what Mac-Donald's Mom looks like. (Ousman did not clarify, and I did not ask.) So yes, there's lots to think about, isn't there?! Puzzled, with love,