Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Cameroon!

Well, where the hell do I start?  It should be obvious now that my internet usage will be irregular.  There is some hope for when my training is complete (in two months), but I wouldn’t keep your hopes up.  There has been internet and I’ve even had free time, but, alas, the two have not coincided.  I’m actually writing this to upload later when I can connect.

First, I had a week in Yaounde (note: there will be no Wikipedia involved in the making of this blog, so expect errors).  This was the orientation part.  Or staging or some other fancy name.  We were under super tight control.  While they said there wasn’t much to be worried about, a group of 55 whites following a regular, predictable schedule and only a few of whom could speak the local language would be bound to draw attention.  We therefore basically either at the hotel or the Peace Corps HQ and chauffeured by Peace Corps SUVs the whole time.  We also enlisted the local Guandams (dammit lack of Google) armed with AK-47s to protect us at all times.  Though we mostly just used them to practice minimal French and occasionally direct traffic (seriously wonder how the locals felt about their public servants being used to move them out of the way to let a bunch of white Americans pass). 

We did manage to do two pretty awesome events during that time.  The first was a concert/dance.  Local style music which was very jazzy and drum heavy.  Loved it.  And the dancing, which I also loved, could have been considered risqué.  OK, very and I felt a bit awkward at points.  You think bouncing asses on rap videos is much?  Ha, this is Africa.  The second was a formal dinner with lots of important people.  Media and government officials and such.  I was lucky enough to sit down and eat with our US Ambassador, Mr. Jackson (my intelligence is apparently directly proportional to my ability to look shit up).  I sort of forced myself to sit with him after making a fool of myself when he introduced himself to me: “Oh, you are the important one with a nametag.”  Looks around to figure out what I’m blabbering on about, “All the tables have them.”  And he walks off.  “Yes, well, yours has your name on it instead of a title,” muttered under my breath.  I should have said plaqueard as it didn’t help that I was actually wearing a damn nametag.  ANYWAY.  I managed to be much more charismatic at the table.  He was incredibly friendly and knowledgeable.  We talked about his career and I learned all about what I could expect if I ever decided to try my luck with the Department of State.  He also had told a couple of great stories about some African mix-ups I can look forward to.  And report on to you.


Basically the first week was a massive blur.  They pounded tons of safety, security, and health information into our heads.  Everything from cultural customs to how to cook your food so that you don’t have terrible monsters growing inside of you.  I’m convinced everything here can kill me and have just accepted it.  Basically, if I get nicked I will get infected and die.  And, for any of you that know me well, I’ve already managed to cut and scrap and bleed plenty.  None of which were on purpose though, hand to God.

When I wasn’t in seemingly endless meetings, I was trying to get to know 54 of my newest, bestest friends.  Since they will be the only people able to really relate to me for the next two years.  At least in a language and culture I understand.  A lot of you may recall some reservations I had about meeting a bunch of young, doe-eyed kids.  Well, while there are probably less than ten who are actually older than me, the vast majority are infinitely more experienced in… anything remotely resembling what I’m here to do.  I’d wager half of them have masters or are working on them and the rest have some other impressive claim to fame.  What’s more than that, I really, seriously like everyone in this group.  They aren’t just people that I’ll hang out with because of the situation; these are people worth seeking out in any other place.  They are intelligent and engaging and I’m probably more excited about watching them work here than I am about myself accomplishing anything.  I mean that sincerely; I’ve found them more interesting than anything else so far.  It would also appear that I managed to sweet-talk myself above and beyond again.  Being charismatic has its perks.  Hopefully, I can translate (literally) that skill into use here.

Speaking of language, I’m finally being presented with the opportunity to learn some of one!  Seriously, during the first week we had so many other things to do that all we received was an emergency survival French lesson.  They moved us onto the training sites and in with host families with a loving kick on the ass.  After a SUPER awkward night, I was happy to get to the training center the next day to learn some French… and discovered that there was still more shit to do and we wouldn’t get to language until the next day.  Awesome.  But worry not, my friends, my French is already improving.  And I can think of no better way to learn.  My teacher is incredibly helpful and effective.  I’m in a group of four students all sharing one teacher to ourselves.  So I get to monopolize a full 25 percent of the time to myself!  And being me, I probably take another 25 percent too!  The immersion stuff I did in Italy is absolutely nothing compared with this.  Though I must say, I am starting at the bottom.  I got selected in the second to lowest class.  The one where they said “oh, you seem to know some words”.  Why, yes I do.  There are like… ten or more levels and I have to get pretty high up before they will allow me to go on with my life.  I’m fairly confident I can bullshit my way through though.  I’m busy learning things that make me sound fluent, possibly to the detriment of the rest, but whatever.  I’d rather sound intelligent than be it any day.  CHARISMA, people.

How about a little bit about the home life?  I’ve been here almost a week now (HOLY SHIT, I can’t believe that’s true).  When describing my first night the day after I went with “It was OK”.  That remains to be true.  While I am improving, I’m having a lot of trouble gauging what exactly I’m supposed to do.  On the one hand they are receiving some sort of compensation for hosting me (murky on the details of that), but I still feel like I’m supposed to help out.  I’m not exactly sure what they expect of me and I seem to fail at everything I try to do anyway.  I have a mom and a dad.  Both are super nice and welcoming while at the same time giving me plenty of space and letting me do whatever I want.  Having space is a nice relief from the super structure of everything else, but I find myself in a half panic wondering what they expect me to be doing.  There are six kids from about 5 to… 16?  I should probably ask them how old they are.  I think I just got their names all down today though, so one step at a time (I should probably go write that down immediately).  The kids take care of everything.  They are like little servants running around making the world turn.  This is good and also part of the “what am I supposed to be doing” problem.  But when I, say, sweep and mop my room which is something they do every day, one of the kids will invariably tell me I’m doing it wrong and take away whatever to do it for me.  This occurs for pretty much everything.  I can’t even but vegetables properly to feed myself.  And we are not going to discuss washing clothes.  How can I fuck up that?  It is water, soap, and a bucket.  But no, my clothes aren’t clean enough; do it again.  And my shoes?  I’VE NEVER WASHED MY SHOES.  Then again, everyone here has nicer shoes than me.  The roads are dirt in my village.  Je ne sais pas.

I got sidetracked.  I’ve done so much.  It feels like I’ve been here forever.  I went with the six kids to Catholic mass this Sunday.  It was about two hours and I understood practically none of it.  There was a lot of singing, a really, really long sermon, and then after some sort of… I dunno, but lots of people got up and spoke and everyone was happy and yelling and clapping.  I hung out with my host mom at the market and sold palm oil.  It’s scary looking in its natural form and also in basically everything I eat, so… that should be fun.  I eat fish every day.  My host dad owns a poissonerie or fish store, but it seems that everyone eats fish here.  It’s good and always fried in oil.  Actually all the food has been pretty good if a bit repetitive.  It is super high in carbs though.  And oil.  Did I mention oil?  My family held some sort of big meeting in our house.  They told me it was an association of families where they pool money for things.  Not sure what things—I got that they pooled money if someone got sick—but everyone had sweet matching outfits.  So maybe they just pool money for that.  The children have learned things.  Like how to demand a piggyback ride.  They have a variety of irregular ways of saying my name.  Mostly Dev.  I should probably pick some African name, but I am rather attached to Dale.  I still don’t really know how to buy things.  Basically, I look at my family to learn how to do anything.  But to buy things, mom and dad just yell for it and one of the kids is off to the market.  I actually chased after one and went to pick up soap with him.  Maybe I am supposed to just send the kids on errands though.  Somehow that seems counterproductive though.  The piggyback rides seem more appropriate in dealing with my white guilt.

Speaking of, one of the things that has struck me as odd is how damnably easy everything is for me.  I’ve been riding on the whole white, American, male for my whole life.  We aren’t actually all white.  There are a few African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic (-Americans? Do we say that?).  Plus slightly over half are women.  And the women here have a million more social and cultural difficulties to overcome here than I.  To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I could put up with half the shit they do or are going to have to put up with.  Basically, just want to throw as much respect to everyone else doing this that is going to have a much more difficult time than I.

Not my most cohesive piece of work, but you gents all need something!  Know that I am doing a decent job of keeping up the ole journal, so the bits you miss will exist in print someday.  The juicy bits post-humus.  I have not taken many photos yet.  It’s an odd thing.  I can’t communicate super well to ask (and particularly explain about posting them online), plus I don’t really feel comfortable enough here to be flashing any wealth.  I already stand out enough to basically guarantee being stopped on the road for a quick chat anytime I’m walking anywhere.  Hopefully, I will be able to update more.  Most likely after training is complete.  I will likely have a bit more personal freedom.  Right now, the town I’m in does not have any internet, so the only way this will get posted is when we collectively visit the larger training site.

You guys are awesome.  It does me good to know that I’ve friends and loved ones out there.  Send emails, stay in touch.  Much love.