Monday, September 19, 2005

Country Bumpkin Meets the Big City

Dear all,

I succumbed today. I went into this really snobby, far-too-expensive, exclusive ex-pats' restaurant across from the US Embassy...and ordered a pizza. I couldn't help myself! A white bread and rice subsistence is not something I was prepared for, and now the big city is making me slightly homesick! The funny thing I realized, though, and I ate the deliciously mediocre pizza, was that I'm now stuck in a really awkward mid-transition phase: I ordered the pizza to make me feel at home; but by now I'm so accustomed to Cameroon's spicy pimon, that I had to cover the dish in black pepper just to give it some taste. But man, canned mushrooms and chewy dough have never been so glorious!

I have spent the day doing official things. First, homestay dad #2, Jonas, took me and some friends to the courthouse to try to get their brother/son out of jail; he was arrested 6 months ago for theft, and has been given an indefinite sentence. On the way to the courthouse, a rainy season downpour descended upon us, and we stopped in a cafe to rant about the government and poverty for about an hour, as the rain passed. This was all a really insightful introduction to the capital city's systems and sentiments... Now, for the past few hours, I have been on my own and visiting all the applicable embassies - Canadian (houses the Australians' welcome center), American, and soon Israeli, in an effort to feel a little more grounded in this crazy place. The streets are totally chaotic, both in urban design and in driving style, and I feel like I need to strap on a seat belt just to cross the street. Unfortunately, even the cars don't have working seat belts, and when they do, it's extremely rude to wear one. (This suggests that you don't trust the driver, and none of my homestay dads have wanted me to wear one in their cars.) The buildings are totally wild, too. Neighborhoods are composed of gaudy chateaux backed by slums and shacks, to the effect that no place really has a definite character. Everything is unpredictable, and what often appears from a distance or from the street is rarely a good representation of what lies beneath (ornate fences fences surround crumbling, ugly palaces; dirty restaurants serve delicious food; I think I know where I'm going, and I'm actually totally lost). The nice Jewish lady (only one around!) who was pulled out of the mail room at the US Embassy to help me touch base with the local Jewish community, told me that four months is just about enough time to get to appreciate this place. With the unpredictability of it all, I'd say that that's a fair prediction.

The bus ride to Yaounde was very pleasant and uneventful; rode on a big Greyhound-style bus, sat next to a nice university law student who I will probably meet up with in the coming weeks, and was just high enough from the ground to not be hustled by vendors at every stop. My homestay dad, Jonas, met me at the agence and took me home. ...It did not take long for me to start missing Thomas, Therese, & Co. Jonas and Aline have 5 kids, all of whom are adorable and totally undisciplined. Before I had unpacked, they unceremoniously went through my things, ate my stashed veggie/comfort food, jumped naked into my mosquito net tent, and generally came into the room at their leisure. The household is generally disordered: meal times are undefined and different for each person, we eat as if from a trough (food everywhere, too bad if you come late and none is left), Jonas loves spontaneity and thought it was cool that Aline was missing for a few hours last night, and the toilet paper has been left in the bathroom window and is now all soggy (and no one seems to mind). There also seems to be some real disdain for my vegetarianism (in part because they weren't prepared for it, despite the supposed love of spontaneity!), and so I am developing creative ways to ease the reality upon them. I will eat well for breakfast and lunch so I'm not too hungry at dinner, bring veggie foods home to plump up my part of the meal, help in the kitchen (Therese's recipes will be so handy), and hopefully make some of my own veggie meals for them. It will work out, I'm sure... The locks on my baggage and my bedroom door give me much confidence.

I don't want to make it all sound bad. Jonas is young and energetic and really fun; we already have plans to climb Mount Cameroon (W Africa's highest point) together in two weeks. Aline is also young and easy-going; she understands my veggie needs, luckily also has a hand in the kitchen, and is a hair-dresser who will put my hair in fantastic braids soon enough... My lab boss called me last night to make contact, and I am about to call him to organize a visit to the lab (tomorrow?) and my work program for the rest of the stay. Maybe I will start this week?? My bedroom is nice and big and private when locked, so I feel comfortable, space-wise. I have pictures of all this, and more, which I will upload as soon as possible; I hope the University computers will allow me to do this... Jonas and Aline do NOT have a DVD player (scoped that out early this morning), so I know of one present that will be well-received. Yaounde will grow on me.

I am off the buy some toilet paper and vegetables. Love,


P.S. Some additional notes:
*President Paul Biya's Motto - C'est dire NON a l'Aventure (Means NO to Adventure)
*Played early morning soccer with the men and boys of Dschang before leaving...had an amazing time getting totally dominated, and turned red from knees down by the red mud...they're African, so I'm not very upset about having been schooled, and was happy to show them that girls like to play, too
*The Nelly & Kelly song, "Crazy Over You" (title?), plays everywhere here...nobody really understands the words...when I explained to Thomas that it's about a girl who leaves her baby's daddy to be with Nelly, he was very disappointed
*the other day, I saw a priest walking around with a football...could anything else scream 'Cameroon!' quite as clearly?


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