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 different...new, 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,



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