Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A Night In, and A Night Out, In This Very Small World...and Bush Mangoes

Dear all,

As mentioned earlier, I had a fantastic Saturday night out with Alla and Estelle. We started in Estelle's apartment (just two floorw below Alla's), impatiently waiting for her drunk boss, Francis, to stop drinking and get off the couch, so we could go... To my dismay, he insisted on driving us to our first stop, the restaurant - and we found ourselves in anout six recurring moments of mortal peril, as he drove forward and backward over the same 20 feet of road to get the perfect parking spot. It was scary to realize that his horrible driving did not any attract attention in the crowded street; and I wondered how often I've been stuck with a drunk driver at 9 in the morning, without even realizing it. When the first restaurant ended up not having food (as if to suggest that beer is sufficient sustenance), Francis offered to drive us another 20 feet to the next closest restaurant. We politely declined, and walked away with our lives.

We ended up eating at Le Globus, a nice patio restaurant situated on the top of hill and overlooking a major grass turn-around. It was fun to sit up there and look down (from a safe distance) at the dim car lights winding and circling, the old village ladies smoking fish and plantains in the dark, and well-dressed people heading out for their own soirées. As wonderful as the view was, the meal proved challenging. I have been longing for independence and exploration - to see the city on my own, unencumbered by the traditions of the family home, the comforts of the familiar Bastos neighborhood, etc. But now, trying to get a decent vegetarian dinner from someone other than a homestay mom who knows me very well, I realized the immeasurable advantages of having a home and family! After an involved conversation with the waitress about the definition of vegetarianism, and if fish do or do not count as meat, I requested a safe combination of boiled plantains and tomato sauce - giving little room for misunderstanding. The only problem was, while the words "no fish" seemed to have registered fine, she clearly misunderstood my constant "hungry" plea. An hour and half after ordering (service is leisurely, at best, here), my meal arrived: one boiled plantain cut up on a plate, and one tiny dipping bowl of tomato sauce. Sure, it tasted fine - but the fact that my dinner resembled three potato wedges and some red mush, while Alla's chicken-platain dish was served on a 2-foot-long silver platter, made me eternally grateful for mothers like Therese and Habiba. I finished off the meal with a few spoonfuls of ketchup and mustard from the condiments plate (I was so hungry!!!), and then someone intelligently suggested that we go to the boulangerie...where I got my fill of spinach pastry and little boys' shenanigans.

We then took a taxi to some rather sketchy part of town to watch Cameroon's famous Assiko dancers. Aseiko must be the sub-Saharan answer to the North and Middle East's belly dancing; the dancers, all male, move only from the waist-down, to the effect that their bodies appear divided at the hips. They did pelvic circles better than any music video dancer I've ever seen; they crouched low and shuffled along the floor, with millipied-like leg movements and unmoving tops - as if their bottom halves were scurrying ants, and their top halves the insects' inanimate food loads; they balanced full beer bottles on their heads, dancing for no less than 10 minutes with floor rolls, high jumps, and forced audience participation. Alla, Estelle, and I were all called up individually...predictably...to shake our hips, and no doubt make the dancers look even better than they already did. In any case, we got hooked - and now have dance lessons, starting tomorrow night, with the head Assiko dancer. I have a slight suspicion that our lesson time, 7 til 8 or 9 pm, is designed to end right around the performance start time, and we will soon find ourselves performing for more audiences! ...Moi? A professional dancer?? Well, I did always have a bit of a knack for it...

We left the Assiko club around midnight, and headed to Hotel Palace Djeuga for some more contemporary night club dancing. Unfortunately (or not), the entrance fee of 40 000 CFA (nearly $80) was rather prohibitive, and we essentially did an uninterrupted U-turn at the desk and headed back to the street. I did, however, use the opportunity to find a nice toilet that flushes, and was rewarded for my efforts - with well-fitted door locks and a real gurgley flush, it was the nicest piece of equipment I've seen since the Brussels airport! We then went to the Safari Club, where we were able to enter the door without selling the clothes off of our backs - but we might as well have, if we wanted to fit in. The entire crowd was composed of only two types of people, and us: old, rich, past-their-primes, white dudes; and young, gorgeous, under-dressed, Cameroonian women. People kept looking at but not approaching us when we walked in; at first I didn't understand this strange behavior, but it soon became clear that we had disupted some delicate, unspoken understanding between Safari Club-goers. Aside from the nasty atmosphere that we chose not to support, and quickly left, I did have an interesting time. I watched an older Isaeli man, who I had met at the Rosh Hashanah party, make a selective decision between several women who were all too young and beautiful for him... When his final choice was threatened by another gross old man's groping hand, he defended his "girl" not with words, but with a petty little swatting hand battle staged on her buttocks. Quite rightly, nothing at the Safari Club happened out loud; sexual partner choices, jealous battles, and territorial statements on others' bodies - all too shameful for the ears - were subtle, silent, well-orchestrated physical activities. To be as disruptive as possible, I wanted to go up and loudly ask the Israeli how he had observed Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, after Rosh Hashanah - but since Estelle knew him and pleaded me not to, I settled for leaving instead. The road was littered with beautiful bodies in shiny dresses and skirts; a part of Cameroon I had never seen before, and suddenly couldn't escape.

The night ended at Parallele Club, where we saw a nice, tame, fully-clothed cabaret of singing and innocent hand-clapping (as opposed to highly offensive hand-swatting). Then I went back to Alla's apartment (too late and dark to go home alone), for a good talk and slumber party. Now I can't wait to go out again, dance again, and enjoy my new status as an informed discriminator of restaurants that serve ketchup and mustard as the better part of a vegetarian dinner, dance clubs whose bathrooms I can barely afford to use, and sleazy prostitute hot-spots.

The following night was equally nice, and much less surprising... We had a huge Ramadan break-fast with guests, Alla and Ousman's young American friend Josh, which was very tasty and fun. We discussed such varied topics as a book swap (all foreigners seem to become avid readers abroad, and I'm quickly running out of reading material), a visa application for Ousman's brother's wife (always a conversation point for Americans, though there's nothing I know or can do about the process!), and the events of the night before. Josh eager to come out with us next time, so it seems that my group of potential friends is growing...and, yikes...becoming alarmingly, unintentionally, WHITE! How did that happen? In any case, if it's not funny enough that a Pittsburgh and two NYC strangers found themselves eating Ramadan dinner in Yaounde, Cameroon - then I have further, indisputable proof that the world is shrinking:
NOTE: My Indisputable Evidence
1) My wonderful taxi coincidence - the one taximan who I met and asked to be my regular driver, ended up as the brother of the lab director, Vitalis...who wanted me to hire him, anyway.
2) Estelle's boyfriend sat next to me on the flight from Brussels to Yaounde (he was visiting for 2 weeks), and meant to give me her phone number but forgot. No matter, we found each other anyway!
3) On Friday, I went to the rehearsal for a malaria theatre piece being organized for the conference. The director of the play turns out to be the cousin of Dr. Fongjweng, an advisor at the College at Penn who tried to arrange her as my homestay.

I recently tasted my first bush mango, and I think that I am in love. Few Cameroonians recommend them, because they supposedly compare weakly to the "normal" (green) mangoes, but I don't care! They have this delicious, tangy, juicy, sweet mango flavor...and since the green mango season ended with the rains in July, I am quite happy to enjoy what is available to me. I am considering devoting the next Recipe of the Week to bush mango-peeling, because I do believe that I could eat about 10 of them for a meal, several times a day. If I can disguise these brown-spotted yellow fruits as kitchen sponges (heavy because they've soaked up water, of course), I might be able to sneak a few hundred home for all to try! Scheming desperately... Love,



Blogger chrish said...

EEK; the landscape narrows, the focus is on you and you are some scary dude. I trust that those you stand up to are equally scared and are willing to change their ways. (Joke, sort of.) Mangoes and plantains sound like a good outlet, stick with them in future, I recommend.

4:38 PM  
Blogger pai hearts mara more said...

it seems that the majority of your blog is focused on none other than food...better not come back a porker.

6:24 PM  

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