Tag Archives: travel

Lessons Learned in 2014

This is a photo of the largest street in Douala, completely blocked with traffic on an average day.
This is a photo of the largest street in Douala, completely blocked with traffic on an average day.

The other night I was on a bus back to my village. A ride that should last 3.5 hours quickly turned into seven. Our bus broke down twice, ending with a passenger holding a phone for light while we both got the bus running again with a rusty butterknife and copper wire. Nevermind the driver. As we finally got moving again I thought about how exactly a year ago I was also on a bus to my village and it took us 11 hours to move 10 kilometres due to standstill traffic. There are stark differences. Last year, I vacillated between crying hysterically, yelling at people on the bus and climbing out the window to go to the bathroom. I felt completely powerless in a city I knew nothing about in the darkness. This year, I was calm, quiet and shared roasted peanuts out of a used soda bottle with other passengers. Instead of freaking out about the 10 people in a 4-person  row behind me, I made friends with them. My Motor City skills even came in handy!

2014-12-19 10.06.30So much about Cameroon finally feels normal. I’ve made peace with the peach and the pit of life here. Here are four souvenirs I want to bring home with me:

  • Gratitude. In college, I babysat for the 3 children of a family therapist. Before bed each child needed to tell me 3 things they were grateful for. Almost immediately, I adopted the habit for my own life and find myself using it when I am stressed or just daydreaming. I may have learned the habit of gratitude in college, but I mastered it here. The highs and lows mean that I need that stability to remind myself why I’m here and that things are almost always not that bad.
  • Patience. I would openly admit that patience might be one of my fatal flaws—I don’t have any and I have no intentions of cultivating in consciously. But here’s the catch, I seem to have learned it here. Nothing is a big deal in Cameroon. In a place where I can be delayed by hours or even days, I have learned to just pull out my book or make sure I have enough money for food. I’ve realized that if I am climbing on top of busses to yell at people, it had better be to make myself feel better because it will do absolutely no good. My friend Lauren said this to me recently, and I think it summarizes the best outlook for coping “Cameroon: where nothing works, but everything works out.”
  • Presence. Don’t come at me with your smart phone at dinner. Leave it in the car. All that multitasking leads to a lot of OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAdistracted, meaningless conversations. In Cameroon, it’s perfectly fine to just sit with your friend and not say anything at all.
  • Being unplugged. I could write volumes on how much I love high speed internet. I miss streaming NPR all day. Fact is, that is just not reality here. In exchange, I’ve read thousands of pages, watched TV Shows I wished I’d always seen, and learned that life does go on when there is no electricity. It’s nearly impossible in the States, but that won’t stop me from being a little more careless with my cell phone.

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

Sunset

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.

Bathroom

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!