Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Giant Update: Week 1 in Dschang

Dear all,

This is exhaustingly long (took two cybercafe visits to finish), so take your time and just browse...then write back, cause I love to hear from you. Merci, je vous adore!

I've now been in Cameroon for about 5 days, and things are absolutely amazing. It's a country of extreme sensations and emotions - much like any unfamiliar place for most people, I guess - and that has made my time here absolutely incredible. I'm right now in Dschang ("chong," rhymes with "song" but resonates a bit more at the end), a town northwest of Yaounde, separated by about 6 hours' reckless driving. My current living situation is great - I live up in the mountains (a 30 minute walk from the town center and market) with an incredible family. The most challenging part of living with Papa Thomas, Maman Therese, and kids Charlyn, Bordoin, Raoult, Ulrich, Robin, Melissa, and Lynn has been learning their names. (All the kids look like mom and dad, which is good because the parents are good-looking - but it's no easy task to distinguish between Good-Looking #1 and Good-Looking #5.) I kept a little worksheet in my journal, with sketches and descriptions of each one, and I filled in their names as I learned them...that worked.

My arrival in Cameroon was initally not so comfortable; the Nsimalen airport in Yaounde brought me into the country with an overwhelming sensation of fear/anxiety/distrust, and hauntingly suggested at a modern, concrete concentration camp - what with the processions in front of military personnel, the long lines of scrutinous inspection, the scowling guards, and me sweating (and regretting) under 180 pounds of baggage. However, I must not forget what a great learning experience it was - for it was at Nsimalen where I paid my first bribe, shook off my first aggressive male "quick friends", and relocated my first piece of lost luggage! About one hour later, I met my pre-arranged driver Gaston (quite conviently, Thomas owns a taxi company, and was able to send one of his drivers to fetch me), and we took off for the city.

In one of Yaounde's many sprawling markets, we stopped at an agence de voyages and bought bus tickets for Dschang. We were to leave on the next bus - so I thought it risky when we headed out into the market for a leisurely dinner - would we not surely miss the bus? But no, I was soon to learn that Cameroon runs on an even slower clock than the Horwitz household! Six hours later, after my first Cameroonian meal of bread, cheese (so dear here!), grapefruit, fried plantain and prune, and water brought over from Brussels, all 30 passengers boarded the bus. Two hours later, after getting gas, stopping for a smoke, readjusting the bags on top, returning to the agence, being entertained by the quarrel between a passenger and a military woman who tried to nosily regulate his choice of seat (she was finally sent away with his ever-so-clever "you're ugly! you don't know what you're talking about!!!" and the other passengers' cheers), we were off. I slept most of the way, waking a few times to look out of the window and see us hurtling along the slick road past crashed buses just like ours. At these moments, I was never sure if I should enjoy the exhilerating speed and sense of yes...PROGRESS!, scream because we were all going to die, or just go back to sleep and call it a dream. Most often, I opted for the latter.

We made a few more stops along the way, all in remote stretches of road in the pitch black of 2 or 4 in the morning. Still, within one second, there were little children's hands cramming themselves through the windows and door, clutching bags of peanuts, mandarins, oranges, and jewelry in front of the passengers. (I am an immediate and obvious target for all vendors, and I have gotten quite good at saying "no" to the construction boots, mattresses, and smoked fish that people try to sell to me...this also includes those men who ask to come home with me!) It just baffles me that there could be so many kids, working so late along any given part of the road, who are working so hard to sell no more than one bag a night. How could it be worth it? Mid-way at 3 am, we stopped at a candle-lit market to eat, smoke, piss, whatever... There were tiny wrinkled little ladies carrying huge baskets of manioc and yam on their heads; little kids running around to sell sacks of cold water; and men playing cards and selling/eating smoked meat in the dark corners of the boutiques. Clearly, judging by the 24/7 activity, Cameroon's poverty is not an issue of laziness, but rather a misdirection of effort. For example, nearly everyone in the markets here in Dschang sells just one or two things - dried manioc and tomatoes, use of a corn grinding machine, or little bags of peanuts. I know that expansion would be hard, but wouldn't the corn grinder get more customers if he bought another machine, and people could come to him for both corn grinding and peanut mashing?? Double the services...triple the customers...reduce the prices... This must be how big agricultural processing plants (and other equivalent things) arise, and yet everyone's stuck in their small-scale specializations here. They invest in one machine, rest their livelihoods upon it, and wait for customers to come for that one exact service...

Dschang is this gorgeous town in the mountains, where the temperature is constant year-round - about 75 degrees F at noon, and cooling to 50 or so at night. Gorgeous. We're just now approaching the end of the wet season, so the growth is verdant and lush everywhere, and the roads are a beautiful (and muddy and treacherous) deep red. I nearly fall at least once a day, and I always get back to the house with lower calves and sandals painted red... From the house, we have a view over the center of town, and I can peer through the clotheslines and past the goats' garden to see the villages and waterfalls on the facing mountainside. I like it when I don't sleep in, and then can participate in all the day's activities: wake up at 6, clean the dishes and wash clothes in the courtyard, avoid the nasty nasty dogs that they keep for security (and which I think have schemes to bite my head off), see the kids out the door on their way to school, eat breakfast in the salon (always eat reclining here) with Therese, Thomas, and Charlyn, and head into town. Everyone pitches in here (youngest child of 4 years can still weild a knife with the best of them...she carries buckets of water, peels potatoes, stokes the fire), and things run like clockwork. A word for all you time-sensitive people - it's a slow but robust clock, thank you very much.

Maman cooks vegetarian meals for me, and they are delicious! (All fears about getting along sans meat in this Cameroonian life have been put to rest...) The first few nights we all ate veggie-style, but I think they maxed out on the vegetable tolerance after that, and now Maman often adds fish to the meals, and keeps a separate pot on the side for me. Naturally, she always makes a bit too much - and just as naturally, at her urgings (like a good Jewish mother, she is!), I eat too much. But it's so yummy! I've been welcomed into the kitchen (they are fairly well-off and have a "normal" kitchen with stove and fridge and running water, but Maman prefers the cooking fire in the mud hut outside) as her tutee, and my journal is full of great recipes that you'll all be enjoying as soon as I get home. Fufu (sticky maize cous-cous that is the perfect finger food) with spicy peanut paste; corn kernels and black beans; white bean stew; mushroom peanut sauce over rice; ndole (ground leaves, yum!!!)'s all amazing finger food...and even if I couldn't eat with my hands, I would still call it amazing! I have been taken very good care of here - they carefully clean the lettuce with permanganate so that it's safe to eat, and I enjoy avocado salads, the sweetest tomatoes I've ever tasted, and green (ripe) oranges, grapefruit, guava, little tiny bananas that we buy by the bunch, and plantains softened over the fire. My goodness, can you tell that I'm being spoiled?! To contribute, every day I try to bring something home for the family - some yogurt, fruit, or whole wheat bread, or extra spoons (a gesture of thanks for hosting my whole family in December). I can also help the kids with their English homework, and my strangely long and slippery hair provides hours of entertainment for the young girls, budding hair dressers. I have started drawing some portraits of the family, which pleases them just as much as my digital camera - and doesn't run out of batteries every 10 photos, damn thing!

There are still a few things here that I'm not adjusted to... Actually, quite a few. First of all, I don't know what it's going to be like to live in the big city of Yaounde, where I go on Sunday; although I will have another great homestay set up, I know that my increased independence (my own work, daily taxi commutes, etc) will further require me to fend myself in the unknown. Cameroonians are on the whole welcoming and generous - but to many, my whiteness means that I wipe my ass with $100 bills, and so schemes to get at the imagined cash are not uncommon... Also, there are other signs that I haven't totally made this dream a reality. The other day, while taking a cold drip shower in the mud-brick bathhouse, next to a squat toilet and with a tropical storm raging outside, I heard a mechanical tinkle - and thought it was an ice cream truck! On the top of the muddy mountain, mind you!!! Then, while getting out a hairband from my bag, I noticed that it had a metal closure and shook my head - "tut tut, Mara, don't you know that that will have to come out if you get a bone scan today!" (I'm part of a study at Children's that does yearly bone density scans, and requires that I take off all metal jewelry.) Yes, there's some adjusting to do...

But I have met the American School for International Training students here in Dschang, who all arrived just a few days before me, and they are great friends and confidantes...and they understand the transition. I went to their welcoming party, see them in the market all the time, and will meet them for lunch in an hour - it's great! Anyway, they have said that I seem to be really comfortable here; I don't know if that's because I am, or because they're not, or simply because I like this dream so much that I've settled down, and the reality still awaits... In any case, Yaounde awaits... More on that later.

Hope all is well. Sending my love,



Blogger Keti said...

Want a friend?

3:38 AM  
Blogger Daniel Striped Feiler said...

Mara, I just wanted to let you know that I'm rooting for you. And also, don't buy any rolex's in a back alley, I bet they're fake.

6:58 PM  
Blogger Gray said...

Hey, Mara. It's great that you're having a good time. Here I was thinking you'd be in danger when it was myself I had to look after... Today at the NREC I cut myself on a robot and had to get stitches. But it sounds like your having a much more fun time than me going to the hopsital...uh, yeah. Good to hear from you... I mean see from you?.. or is it read from you? Oh well, can't wait for more! Love, Gray (your brother)

5:48 PM  
Blogger shana.kickin said...

Shana and I loved reading your blog - sounds like you are having an amazing experience. Shana particulraly loved the flavorful language ... we hope you will post some photos to your blog soon. We'll check in again soon.
Debra & Shana

2:13 PM  
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