Mission Accomplished

Before I left for Cameroon, I sat myself down and asked how I would define success as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I sat on a park bench in Kiev overlooking the Dniper river trying to imagine what exactly I would be doing that could lead to success. I had never even touched foot in Africa, let alone Cameroon. So I set my pen and paper down and went back to nursing my coffee and reading.

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Twelve weeks later, I revisited this question. I had finished training and was living in my village. Since that time, I spoken with many seasoned volunteers about their lives and how they decided if they were successful. Some people came here with huge expectations—something akin to White Savior Syndrome. I didn’t want that. I wanted to check my ego at the door and realize that if I haven’t shifted the entire American culture which I already understand and am a part of, then I most certainly will not shift Cameroonian culture in two years. I am not going to leave Cameroon a famous “thought leader”. I settled on what I consider a modest goal: I want to change one person’s life. If I can do that in two years, I win.

I’ve been in Cameroon nine months now. Honestly, I feel that most days I am too mobile to be doing effective work. I had planned four days of Youth Day activities in Manjo, but students were accusing the principal of witch craft at the local high school because many students were becoming asthmatic. In response, he cancelled all of our activities.

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After Youth Day in my village, I travelled to Buea to help with the Race of Hope events. We tested almost 1,000 people for HIV in a single day. The event was flawless due to the hard work of a great team. I was supposed to be in my bed, sleeping at home on the 17th and ready for meetings the following morning. But destiny had another plan for me; the Cameroonian President, Paul Biya, was coming to Buea so the streets were all shut down and every last military person was in Buea. I ended up staying in Buea for an additional day and some much needed girl time, but that meant missing my meeting in Manjo.

Some of the best days can come from just going with the flow and taking opportunities as they arise so when my friend Becca suggested lunching in Douala, I said sure. Our original plan was to have coffee with her friend and then have a nice lunch and continue up to my village two hours away. As I arrived in Douala, I called my friend Bienvenu and asked him to meet us for coffee as well. He has been a source of happiness in my life since my first weeks in Cameroon, so being able to see him was quite serendipitous since he is actually living about four or five hours north. We immediately sat down and started catching up because we have a number of mutual friends. We started recalling how in December I came to Douala to speak to a large group of Youth about setting goals and creating great action plans. It was hands down my most successful activity this far. It was just like speaking to a group of University students in the United States. They were smart, they asked challenging questions and they were interested in evolving and making the world a better place.

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After the speaking event, I went to have drinks with a smaller group of five participants. We talked about how difficult it is to balance the demands of becoming an educated person and to support yourself or your family financially. I got a chance to speak with each person about some of the individual challenges they are facing and discuss the short and long term impact of their daily decisions. For example, should one work a job that makes good money now at the port, but have little opportunity for advancement or expansion? Will that job still be there in 20 years or will technology make it obsolete? More than two months later, Bienvenu told me that one of the men I spoke with listened to my advice and was now focusing full time on school. In other words, my way of thinking had influenced him to make a change. A smile spread across my hot, sweaty face. I had done it, I had reached my goal. But here is the beauty of it all—at the time I thought I was just sitting down with some cool city kids. My peers, 20 something, educated Cameroonians wrestling with the same questions. That is where the real magic happens when you’re just going with the flow of things.

I win.

Why am I Here?

There comes a point in every twenty-something’s life when they must/should ask themselves if they are spending their time how they envisioned. For the record, I think this question should be asked periodically, no matter what age you are. Are you living passionately? When I have to make a tough decision, I like to ask myself “What would my most adventurous, bad ass hero do?”. I contemplate that, then go do it.

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How did all of the signs point to Peace Corps? When I was young, maybe 12 or 13, my mom took us on vacation to Essex, Massachusetts. If you look at pictures of this vacation I was looking disgruntled in almost every photo taken. It was around this time I began to experience teenage angst which showed itself though my facial expressions and poor wardrobe choices. Today, I lovingly call it “my awkward decade”. I may or may not be finishing it right now.

But there was Michael, this zen-like man with a rather unconventional house on the wharf. I sat with him one day and he told me how he had a dream about being in the African savannah and seeing some kind of exotic animals, maybe zebras. Then instead of finishing his story lamenting his unfulfillment, like so many adults I knew., he told he “and then I did it. I joined Peace Corps and got to see the things I had only read about come to life”. That’s all it took. I knew what kind of person I wanted to become. Today, I haven’t spoken to Michael since leaving Essex, but he has had a lasting impact on my character.

This article talks about the life choices millennials are making. Are they going to make us better? Or are we just reckless? But Max’s life choices resonate with me so much. I have a degree in economics and a small pile of internships on my resume. I also know that the idea of Max’s father, that each of us will live well into our 80’s, can be an assumption made in vain. Life is a race against a timer that we cannot see—and what society says people Piggymy age “should” be doing does not take that into consideration. I have given up 2+ years of a dependable, well paying job to make some of the most interesting, gutsy friends I have to date. I may not be adding to my 401(k), but I have my breath taken away by the beauty around me and the kindness of humanity. I feel completely alive everyday.

The West

La Maison de la Blanche: Manjo Edition

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In Peace Corps, each of us are given a place to live. No one knows what that place will be like. Running water? How many bedrooms? How difficult is it to get there? Will I have a postmate? When we are in training, we can make requests, but the key word here is request. Peace Corps Cameroon is the kind of place where a small number of volunteers are so isolated and lacking amenities that they have a satellite phone. I came to Cameroon prepared to adjust to whatever Peace Corps threw my way. We traditionally have two meetings while training to discuss personal needs for a potential site. When I sat down in my first meeting with my program manager to discuss post, I made a list of things I would like, in order of preference. It went something like this:

1) Francophone

2) less than 30 kilometres to the next volunteer

3) Internet access within 30 km as well.

My large terrace

But then I started rambling about how I have been daydreaming about making pineapple wine. And before I knew it, the meeting was over. 

Then, four weeks later, we had another meeting. At this point I had been in Cameroon long enough to begin having some dietary stress. The lack of fruit in my diet was making me miserable. I was constipated for weeks at a time. Fruit is not really a regular part of the Cameroonian diet in the way Americans eat fruit. In the States, I can eat a fruit salad and a glass of chocolate milk everyday—that’s a great meal for me! Here, well, the primary ingredients in anything is palm oil, rice and piment. Everything else is optional. So by the time the second meeting arrive, I had been dragged through the mud with language training. I wasn’t feeling so confident with my French, I had even cried in language class the first week. I sat down and told my program manager that at this point, I don’t care where I go, I need to have access to fruit all year round, or else I will not survive. After that, everything is negotiable. I also mumbled that francophone would still be fun.

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KitchenFast forward to August 8th, when I arrived in Manjo. I had spent two days travelling with Ben to our region. I stepped out of a bus meant for 35, but packed with 56 (excluding children under 10). I looked around and saw two petrol stations and tons of people swarming at me. Because fate always is timely, the phone towers were not working, making a phone call was impossible, so I just stood there trying to remember how many bags I had. I would later find out phone service is very much an on-again-off-again thing here by the hour during rainy season. But then my community host, Monique found me and within minutes, I was moving through the center of town toward my apartment. As I crossed the street and people gesticulated to eachother that they understood why I was here, I knew that I would never again be a stranger here.

I am living on the Francophone/Anglophone line in the Littoral region of Cameroon. My village is francophone, and my language skills are greatly improved since those interviews in Bafia. I am 15 km away from 5 volunteers and 20 km away from Ben, a guy who began training with me. I have running water all of the time and electricity most of time. While, living with my host family, I spent every morning and evening drawing water from the well. And while I have running water, I still take bucket baths because I heat the bucket first so that I am not freezing cold. I am living in an apartment on the road to Douala. I have 3 bedrooms and two bathrooms. All fully furnished, though I have added a nice speaker system. I have two terraces, they both look out to the mountains which host enviable sunsets on the regular. One terrace has a sink for doing laundry or just to serve dinner on. I have a TV. With cable. I The back terracelive less than 3 hours from the coast. I live in, what some argue, is one of the nicest apartments in Peace Corps Cameroon. The person I am replacing, Cherlin, took it a step further and had made the bed and put fresh soap out for my arrival. But the cherry on top is that I am literally surrounded by fruit. I even have a man, Thaddeus who delivers papaya to me when I call him. 

Dining Room

My bedroomSomehow, needing to be near fruit. Being arguably the pickiest eater in my training cohort has gotten me a little paradise in the jungle. It is my first time living alone. The apartment is huge. Washing the floors is quite an undertaking but also a very good workout. But most importantly, it feels like home. 

Living room

Sunset II

A Fresh Begininng

Good Morning! I’m want to dust off this blog and start a new chapter. In May, I left for Peace Corps! The application process was one of longest I had ever been through but there was big pay off because I made it. I am a Community Economic Development Adviser in Cameroon.

All of the volunteers in the first week in Cameroon. Leaving for dinner at the Country Director's house.
All of the volunteers in the first week in Cameroon. Leaving for dinner at the Country Director’s house.
This is the first day with my family, I took some pictures with some of the kids.
This is the first day with my family, I took some pictures with some of the kids.

Cameroon is a bilingual country in Sub-Saharan Africa that has more than 200 local languages. It is also home to some of the most rare animals on earth. We have elephants, monkeys, gorillas, giraffes, lions, hippopotamus and these things called cane rats. Cameroon is called Africa in Miniature because it has such a varied landscape and can have such drastically different cultures, going to the North is like being in a totally different country than in the South. I spent the first ten weeks training with 30 other volunteers in Bafia, a city in the Centre region. While there, I did a homestay and made some amazing friends. I learned French (that’s a work in progress) and sat through classes on things like water sanitation and malaria.

A photo with my favorite language teacher.
A photo with my favorite language teacher.

There is also this exotic food in Cameroon called spaghetti omelets, they’re as popular as cupcakes are in the States. You can find a spaghetti omelet in almost every town. It is exactly what it sounds like, spaghetti noodles, MSG sauce (it also comes in cube form!) with a couple of eggs fried with palm oil to be an omelet. You can have vegetables added like beans, tomatoes, pepper and onions, but that would ruin this mean with nutritional value. Once that omelet is piping hot, it usually comes in sandwich form and you can get mayonnaise on the bread if your aren’t sure it will taste good. Now I know you are trying to count how many different kinds of carbs I ate in one meal but you should just stop. Spaghetti omelets are surprisingly good and they cost the equivalent of $0.40. I think it might be like Taco Bell, great drunk food.

Some of the boys from my stage looking dapper.
Some of the boys from my stage looking dapper.
My host family on the morning of my swearing in as a volunteer.
My host family on the morning of my swearing in as a volunteer.

One of the three goals of Peace Corps is to share American culture with Cameroonians. I did not think about this goal outside of training classes AT ALL, but those goals can sneak up on you when you least expect it. My first example is that I have been into running for a few years. I would wake up my family to unlock the door three or four times a week at 5:45 so I could go for my run. I would usually come back sweaty with grass and mud all over me looking like I had been fighting nature itself. Little did I know the mama of the house was taking notice! In my last three weeks she asked to join me on our run! I sharing my passion for fitness was a great way to share an experience with someone I couldn’t even speak a full sentence to the first day in our home.

This is the morning of our swearing in ceremony with some of my friends.
This is the morning of our swearing in ceremony with some of my friends.
Some of the girls from stage trying on a mustache.
Some of the girls from stage trying on a mustache.
Our favorite spaghetti omelette place with some other volunteers.
Our favorite spaghetti omelette place with some other volunteers.

And second, I love Heinz ketchup. Probably more than most people. So when I was in the capitol city, Yaounde, I bought some for my cheeseburger. We had to take our food to go since we had somewhere to be. Later, there was a group of us getting spaghetti omelets in the market, I was sitting next to a gentleman who explained that he is a truck driver and he helped us negotiate things with the chef. I thought he was being exceptionally non-derangy, he didn’t even ask me if I had a husband and I had been there for ten minutes at least! Since I had bought my ketchup a few weeks ago, I thought it was a good idea to travel with it so I could use it if the opportunity arises. When I pulled it out of my motorcycle helmet bag I saw him peak at it through the corner of his eye. I wasn’t sure if he maybe thought I was crazy or brilliant. After gauging the reactions of my friends the vote was in and the American friends unanimously agreed I was nuts but the Cameroonian just thought maybe I knew something he didn’t. So I shared the ketchup with him. He picked up his white bread baguette that was meant for his sandwich with new purpose. Once he realized it wasn’t just tomato paste for white people, I saw a smile creep onto his face. He even nodded his head and looked at me, saying “C’est bien”, chewing with his mouth open probably so I could see the product of my generosity. I gave him some more Heinz ketchup. When he was finished, he said assuredly “nous sommes ensemble”.

Where to get your caffeine fix in Baltimore

Hello there! How are you? Yes, it HAS been a while. There are no excusable excuses to be had here. As I write this, I am no longer living in Baltimore. I have moved back home for a bit. I am taking a French class at the local community college and spending Sunday mornings at the Eastern Market. Step back from Detroit. Close your eyes. Let’s pretend I am back in Baltimore on a crispy January Sunday morning.  For me, Sundays are synonymous with latte’s and the New York Times. The only place to execute your Sunday routine is the Daily Grind where you can taste the very essence of Baltimore in your coffee grounds.

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The Daily Grind is one of those coffee houses that you walk into immediately feel at ease. You are not going to be overwhelmed by pretension and a barista looking at you like you’re dumb if you just want a humble cup of coffee (no frills please!).

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe shop is situated right on the harbor. If you go on Saturday mornings, there is a farmer’s market just a block or two away on Broadway. Once inside, you can smell a mix of bread, eggs, and coffee.

The counter reminds me of European cafes; it has a half door that opens to the sidewalk for people with dogs–and they sell cigarettes behind the counter like a scene from Amelie. You can pick up a great variety of newspapers, but the New York Times can sell out before noon if you aren’t careful.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis place is truly a haunt for locals. One of the tables across from the bathrooms has a sign that reserves it for a small group of people early in the mornings. It has an incredible amount of natural light with skylights and a brick facade. The lattes are good and a dollar cheaper than Starbucks. Most importantly, its a great place to sit down and relax, and get to know the real neighborhood.

Getting there: DC Metro

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Living in Baltimore, I am well positioned to visit my friends all over the East Coast. The only  thing that limits me is my budget (I am wealthy in time, not money). I imagine that DC and Baltimore have a relationship similar to that of San Francisco and Oakland–so close but sometimes local cultures are polar opposites.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Prior to moving to Baltimore, I hadn’t been in DC since the traditional high school field trip to the Capitol. I totally forgot about how unique the Metro is in DC. One, because you get charged by distance and two, because nothing else looks so distinct. The majority of Metro stations were designed by Harry Weese, whose creation has been featured on modern architectural lists. Do you think you would know you were in the DC if you could only see the Metro station?

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Have a look!

The Best Place to Wait in Line For Breakfast: Baltimore Edition

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I normally don’t believe in waiting, but Blue Moon Cafe has a line for two very good reasons. 1) they don’t take reservations to the best of my knowledge and 2) their food is amazing. If you arrive during peak hours on the weekend, the wait can be upwards of an hour. Part of the wait and religious following can be explained by the Food Network appearance.

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I love Blue Moon for the low key nature, it is very much come as you are. I have never felt out of place in my yoga pants or jeans. The wait staff is friendly and they share duties, so it’s OK to ask anyone for more syrup. The walls feature local artwork that rotate regularly.

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What to order? I am exceptionally boring, and order the same thing every time–the Captain Crunch French Toast (it’s what they are famous for). Trust me, try it. Friends who come with me and tried something else have loved every dish placed in front of them.

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If you’re not a waiting list champion Blue Moon Cafe is open 24 hours on the weekend. I have arrive at 7am and been seated without a wait. Waking up that early is certainly a trade off but there’s always naps!

Baltimore: Charming the Tourists

Historical boats floating in the Inner Harbor

I skidded into LaGuardia in the last week of August…without a ticket to Michigan (where I had parked my bags before leaving for Europe). Getting home was an exercise in resourcefulness and emotional control. I had planned to fly home standby with Southwest, but when I got to the counter, I was informed my luggage couldn’t go with me. Not willing to part with my things I sat down to scope out my other options. I had roughly $200 to my name, so the getting home was not and issue of finding a place to swipe my AmEx. Megabus doesn’t go that far. Amtrak was too expensive. So I pulled out my phone I hadn’t used in months and started calling my friends. Within a couple of hours I was on a Megabus to Philly to stay at my old house with one of my best friends. The happy ending isn’t here though, I still needed to get to Detroit. Philly was wonderful, I got to recharge my batteries and I remembered a friend in Atlanta had mentioned this website, Zimride. I logged on and found a ride home. My driver was this guy, Dan, he provided more than one full bellied laugh…and didn’t mind that I act like a totally dysfunctional human. By Sunday evening I was standing on a corner in Ann Arbor waiting for my mom, sister and niece and I to catch up over some Indian Food.

People playing Volleyball.

The following week I was in Baltimore settling into my new apartment. That feeling of waking up and getting in the car and having no idea which way to go is a little scary but fun. I could never explain how I arrived there, but I found a Whole Foods and a Starbucks (where I would Google how to get home). It was around this time I realized I was in the “i=Inner Harbor” which is 1) where the rich people live and 2) where all the tourists mill about. There are several large ships parked there. You can also find some street performers and museums. If you are a people watcher, this is your side of town because yachts also park in the harbor and their residents mosey around the area mixing with the local flavor. There are plenty of higher end things to do as well as predictable Americana such as a mall and the expected high rise or two. Most of these pictures are thanks to a gentleman, Albert, who took me on an extended walk to see what Baltimore has to offer. The Inner Harbor is how Baltimore wants outsiders to remember it.