Saturday, June 15, 2013

And Then There Were None...

The dingy, poorly-lit, and permanently dirt-stained interior of the bottom floor of the restaurant "La Jardin Balen" ranks among one of the nicest restaurants in Bafang. Drab interior relflected my downer mood. I had been letting tears fall off my cheeks ever since Chiho started saying her goodbyes to her collegues. Now I was one of the only ones left waiting to hug her, flanked only by my counterpart, Carine.

I threw both of my arms around her and started a new round of sorrowful heaves. Chiho was leaving. She'd been a constant presence during my stay in Bafang. We were almost the same age and started our service at the same time. Her leaving made my leaving more real.

In my shakey voice I began to speak in my heavily accented French. Carine, always used to laugh when we talked because, in her words, "You and Chiho both say nonsense, but somehow end up making sense of one another." This time, even our secret language couldn't break a smile on her face.

I pulled back out of the giant bear-hug I had embraced Chiho in, "I remember the first day I saw you," I sobbed.

"You were walking down that back road to school, but you had Nari and Wataru with you. I felt intimidated somehow and didn't even say a thing to any of you..." Chiho wiped a tear out of her eyes.

"A few days later I saw all of you again. I decided to say 'hello' so I marched up and said 'goodmorning' in English. You all got wide-eyed and said, 'NO. NO! NO ENGLISH!'" I laughed through my tears and Chiho did too.

It was funny to think that at one point we knew each other so little that I didn't feel comfortable saying 'hello' and she didn't feel comfortable speaking English in front of me.

I wiped more tears away and hugged her again. I felt like if I could hold on to her I could keep this moment and not let it slip away. I felt that if she didn't leave, I might not have to also.

We Will Never Understand

And you must know this law of culture: two civilsations cannot really know and understand one another well. You will start going deaf and blind. You will be content in you own civilisation...but signals from the other civilisation will be as incomprehensible to you as if they had been sent by tthe inhabitants of Venus.

Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Emperor

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Weight of the World

All that knowledge, it was killing her...if she remembers...she'll burn up.

The Doctor, Doctor Who

I have this theory that the only way that most people can go back to living the life they've lived after being in a third world country is compartmentalization. I've been asking myself lately how people, specifically Peace Corps volunteers can go back to a life so different from what they lived in for two years. Some of them never really going back into development-type work ever again...working 9 to 5...sitting in a cubicle with paper weights and coffee breaks. It's not everybody that goes back to this way of life, but it's a large portion.

How much does seeing all this really change you?

When I was back in the States on home leave I noticed myself trying to forget. It was when I'd remember how little people had here in Cameroon, when I compared a mud house to an American Colonial, or the weekly market to Walmart, or a chop house to a chain restaurant that I would start to feel uncomfortable. Guilty.

Things that I suppose I always knew in the back of my mind have become more than just an unconscious thought; like that growing up in a first world country versus a third world country is not a choice. It's not something you can work to change or strive for. And changing one's situation in a third world country is
sometimes impossible, no matter how much effort you put in. But in the end, do we stop thinking about how lucky we are because if we thought about it all the time the guilt would eat us up inside? Does the knowledge we gain become a burden we acquire?

I know I wouldn't trade this for the world. Peace Corps has been the hardest, most confusing thing I've ever chosen to do in my life. Making sense of all the changes, though isn't easy. To fit back into my culture I'll have to assimilate. And in assimiliating, all this that I've experienced here will have to fade. I'll pack up these memories to a corner of my mind, taking them out when it is appropriate, but surely not dwelling on them indefinitely.

I know it might happen. But should it?

If I tried, would I be able to stop it?

Forward Motion?

Because while everyone is chasing each other around outside the box, do you know what the box is? Empty.” 

Phil Dunphy, Modern Family

I sat with Carine outside her outdoor kitchen. 

"Can you take the grinding stone?"

"The pierre?" I said, showing off my bit of French.

She nodded. She began to grind "green spices," leeks, basil, celery. She pressed two stones together, taking a large gray stone, rolling a smaller one across it in a rhythmic kneading motion, as if she were making bread. 

"I could send this to Mimi's grinder, but since I have time I'm just going to do it myself. It saves money and it will taste better in the end."

"It will?"

"Eh," she shrugged. "I don't know. That's just what people believe anyway."

"Just like how they think that rolling the couscous in your hand before you eat it makes it taste better?" That was one of my favorite parts of Cameroonian cuisine: being encouraged to play with my food before it entered my mouth.

She smiled. "Yes, a bit like that."

People in Cameroon often use machines if they are available out of convenience, but will mention that some things simply are better if they are done the traditional way. Sometimes tradition trumps change and innovation. Not always, but sometimes. Once in a while, the age-old solution is the most simple one and the most satisfying.

Friday, January 18, 2013


Partly because Peace Corps volunteers spend countless nights alone, bottling up our frustrations and daily histories and partly because we live in such a closed community that we gossip like a small village or group of high schoolers, our stories get good--or if they aren't to begin with we make sure we exaggerate a bit to get them there. In our defense, we're generally surrounded by rich oral culture.

So I heard this one time...

A female volunteer gets up on the crunchy paper of the examination table. It's midservice health exam and she's there for her mandatory pap smear. The Nigerian nurse walks in and starts to prepare to swab.

"Lay down," the nurse says. The volunteer does.

"Okay, spread your legs," the volunteer does.

The volunteer is now looking up at the nurse from between her Arc de Triomphe. The nurse holds out both hands in a beckoning motion.

"Come for me."

The volunteer's eyes bug out.


"I said, 'Come for me!'"

The nurse is still waving her hands. She's obviously waiting for something. A million strange scenarios begin to rush through the volunteer's head. What was she supposed to do? Surely she wasn't supposed to do what it seemed this woman was asking her to do...

She asks again, "Um, what?"

"SCOOTCH!" the nurse yells.

The volunteer breathes an immediate sigh of relief and moves forward on the white parchment paper.

There's one example of the types of stories we tell. I've got plenty more. "Come" on over some time and I'll tell you all about them...

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Be New

"Cells change every five years, you know," Veronica sat across from me during Thanksgiving while I was stuffing my face with a second slice of pumpkin pie.

"So basically you're a completely different person every five years," she finished.

I started humming the Twilight Zone theme in my head after hearing that, appropriate since there's a marathon on television every Thanksgiving that my Dad turns on each year. Maybe it's ridiculous to think that we're completely different in just five years...but we do change. When we'd turn up our nose at a food we didn't like my my always used to tell us that she hated tomatoes until she got older ("Just try it again, you never know, you might find out you like it!"). I thought any wine besides dessert wine tasted sour until I was 22. I hated canned asparagus as a kid and...I still despise that ungodly slime known as canned asparagus. So, some things never change, but other things do.

"You think you won't want certain things now: marriage or kids, or that you'll never stop partying, or dancing, or staying up late, but these things can change. Your body changes and you can't always control it."

She says all this, but let's be honest I'm defiant and stubborn. Just like most other people, deep down I think I'm invincible. I think I'm going to stay how I am forever because I don't want to face the fact that change is a scary free-fall into the unknown. I sometimes forget that the very reason I was attracted to a job in the Peace Corps was because I loved how all the returned volunteers had one mantra in common, "This will change your life."

Well, Peace Corps experience has certainly changed how amazing pumpkin pie tastes on my taste buds. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. We, like our cells, split, live, die, in a beautiful, perpetual dance of change. In turn we split, create, bury, our environment. Nothing lasts forever.

"This will change your life."

And "life will change this."

All of it.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

“Le Rêve est une Bataille"

"'There are many dreams in a long night.' It has been a long night, but I don’t know if I want to continue the dreams. It feels like I am walking on a little path, both sides are dark mountains and valleys. I am walking towards a little light in the distance. Walking, and walking, I am seeing that light diminishing. I am seeing myself walk towards the end of the love, the sad end. I love you more than I loved you before. I love you more than I should love you. But I must leave. I am losing myself. It is painful that I can’t see myself. It is time for me to say those words, those words you kept telling me recently. 'Yes, I agree with you. We can’t be together.'”
Xiaolu Guo
The Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
I had a dream the other night that I found out I had mysteriously gained the ability to teleport. First thing I did was teleport to you. This happened a few times until I became aware that everytime I teleported my body temperature dropped. I noticed I couldn't raise my temperature but I didn't have enough self control to stop myself from using my new found powers either. My limbs became solid, unmoving. I became so cold you couldn't touch me. I became a solid ice cube, a statue of a girl.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Beginning of Everything

色不异空 , 空不异色
色皆是空 , 空皆是色

"The emptiness is without form, but the form is also the emptiness. The emptiness is not empty, actually it is full. It is the beginning of everything."

Xiaolu Guo

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

I sat making Christmas "chin-chin" with Carine; small delicious crackers made from butter and flour and deep fried--a huge treat.

"It doesn't feel like Christmas," I sighed while pounding the dough into a flatter ball on the table. I lifted the wine-bottle-rolling-pin.

"We have some Christmas music," I'll have Shilton go look for it. (Note: we eventually got around to playing the CD that Shilton found, but it wasn't exactly your stereotypical Christmas music; though I think it did say something about Jesus...does that count? Welcome to Christmas in Cameroon)

I scrolled through the music on my phone. Just Top 40...and oooh...a Jason Mraz album. 

"Well, we can put this on while we're waiting," I hit the play button with doughy fingers on the song "Life is Wonderful."

"I like this song," her words like small fizzles of dough in the pot, warm with excitement.

I feel like she didn't have to even say it. I knew before she even said anything that she liked it, because, well, the same way I knew after reading Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe that she'd like it, because the poetry...the's how she talks. Everything for her comes back to the larger picture, the universe, give and take, yin and yang. Carine believes in the balance of life. Whenever she speaks she adds little proverbs; things she's heard, things she's just come up with on her own.

She tells me that we find God in the world, not in a church.

She tells me that somehow the energy of the universe never dies, that she wouldn't be surprised if our souls came around again (did I mention she's Catholic).

She tells me that we all might believe different things, but we're all on different paths towards God.

She tells me that somehow the people leave this world when their work is finished. That's why people say the good die young. I jokingly promise to be evil.

She tells me that love fades, but when it begins to, that's when we truly start to discover what love is. 

Tea and Sympathy

"Oohwow. Le pastèque! Tu peut donner moi ça, no?" Massa (short for "Master") Yo asked. He stood outside his boutique and pointed at my watermelon with his wooden crutch.

"Eh," I said with a smile. "I looked hard for that in the market," I said, patting my small, pale green watermelon.

I was buying some small items: eggs and Lipton tea.

Massa Yo started chatting away as he was getting my items. I wasn't listening. I started looking down at my watermelon. I felt bad. I mean I guess I should give it to him...he was a cripple after all. It's not like it was very easy for him to just get up and go to the market if he wanted a watermelon, like someone with two fully functioning legs would be able to do.

He interrupted my thought with a question, "Are there people like me in your country?" he said while lifting his crutch.

"Well, yes," I said, taken off guard.

"Do they pity people like me?"

I hesitated...we did, but it didn't seem polite to voice that we did. I couldn't like though. "Ummm...yes? Sometimes." I shifted my weight between my feet uneasily.

"People here pity people who can't walk. Our lives are too hard here," he swung his head low and then handed me my eggs and tea.

There was a moment of silence. I didn't know what to say. I'd been considering pitying this man and here he was practically reading my mind. I eventually gave him a watermelon on Christmas Eve that was even bigger than the one I'd been carrying that day. Maybe it was right, maybe it was wrong. In the end, he's my friend.

What I didn't realise until later was, that Massa Yo aside from either trying to reveal my guilt or induce pity, was probably just hoping that there was a place where his disability wouldn't matter. America is everyone's Mecca here in Cameroon, their idea of heaven. Carine always refers to America as "God's Own Country." Sure, we live in America and know its not true, but the idea of an American Dream was what lead so many of our own ancestors to the country where we call home. However misguided of a conception, Massa Yo might have just wanted to know if there was a place on this earth where he'd be treated just like everyone else, where he'd never have to feel the embarrassment that comes from being pitied by those who are "normal," the people who've got it all.

I wish I could have told him it was real.

"Trade in all our words for tea and sympathy, wonder why we tried, for things that could never be."
Jars of Clay
Tea and Sympathy

Prostitute Yourself

Originally written for our Peace Corps education sector's newsletter:

Unwieldy phrases like that are the best way to get the attention of your audience. I do it all the time. If a class isn't listening to me I just yell something like, "DIARRHEA!!!" and that tends to get everyone's attention. It also makes people real uncomfortable if you yell it in a bush taxi.

"Teaching is a lot like prostitution."

I was sitting in the front row one of my classes freshman year when our professor said that. I spent the next half hour trying to figure out whether he was comparing giving a lecture to giving fellatio or taking sabbatical to taking your clothes off. Five years later, and I've finally concluded that the only important thing was that he was using a bad metaphor.

Then again, teaching is sometimes like putting on a show. We dress up, we perform to sometimes disinterested audiences who are often only concerned with the final result. We are the means to an end.

And a bad teacher, like a bad prostitute, is someone who bores, who leaves before their time is up, who doesn't deliver what's expected, who doesn't get their audience to that "level."

Maybe we have more in common than we think.

어떡하죠 이젠?

아직도 너의 소리를 듣고
아직도 너의 손길을 느껴
오늘도 난 너의 흔적 안에 
아직도 너의 모습이 보여
아직도 너의 온기를 느껴
오늘도 난 너의 시간 안에 살았죠

길을 지나는 어떤 낯선 이의 모습 속에도~
바람을 타고 쓸쓸히 춤추는 저 낙엽 위에~도
뺨을 스치는 어느 저녁에 그 공기 속에~도
내가 보고 듣고 느끼는 모든것에 니가 있어
~ 그~래

어떤가요 그댄
어떤가요 그댄
당신도 나와 같나~요
어떤가요 그댄~

지금도 난 너를 느끼죠
이렇게 노랠 부르는
 지금 이 순간도 난~
그대가 보여

내일도 난 너를 보겠죠
내일도 난 너를 듣겠죠
내일도 모든게 오늘 하루와 같겠죠

길을 지나는 어떤 낯선 이의 모습 속에도~
바람을 타고 쓸쓸히 춤추는 저 낙엽 위에~도
뺨을 스치는 어느 저녁에 그 공기 속에~도
내가 보고 듣고 느끼는 모든것에 니가 있어
~ 그~래

어떤가요 그댄
어떤가요 그댄
당신도 나와 같나~요
어떤가요 그댄~

길가에 덩그러니 놓여진 저 의자 위에도~
물을 마시려 무심코 집어든 유리잔 안에~도
나를 바라보기 위해 마주한 그 거울 속에~도
귓가에 살며시 내려앉은 음악 속에도
니가~ 있어

어떡하죠 이젠
어떡하죠 이젠
그대는 지웠을텐데

I watched the big round glass of Sunny-D in the sky sink between the haze covered sky and towering apartment buildings while taking a bus back to my flat. The bus that I paid to get on with my cellphone charm...where I had my own seat and I could lean my head against the window pane...where there were no chickens...where the only thing reeking of alcohol was the small red man sleeping across from me who smelt like soju and dried squid.  I listened to this song and thought of the boy who'd never be mine.

Today, I sat and watched a red polka dot set between ancient trees in a foggy valley, smoke from the fires burning trash and farmland. I paid my money to a man who yelled "L'argent!" and held out his hand demandingly to take my crumpled bill...we sat six across in a row meant to seat four...I heard a chicken cry or a baby (not sure which)...the man next to me kept swigging from a water bottle full of palm wine that was expanding and leaking with the change in altitude. I thought of this song and the boy that I loved who'd never be mine. 


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

I'm sitting at the volunteer house right now watching music televison. It's so mesmerizing that Joanna started laughing at me sitting zombie-eyed at the T.V. "You're really glued to that, huh?" I shook my head to snap myself out of it.

It was a Justin Bieber music video. I have no shame.
It's been strange to me lately how differently time passes at particular points in our life. How waiting for five minutes can sometimes feel like waiting for five hours, and five hours snogging someone real cute feels like five minutes.

How sitting mesmerized in front of a Justin Bieber music video makes it feel as if no time has passed at all...don't judge.

Kim told me the other day that since she extended to a post in the capital with a 9 to 5 job she's missed her "staring at the wall time" in village. One thing we have as Peace Corps volunteers is time. As a whole, we live in cultures and socities where time itself simply means something different; the pace of life is slower. We have time to think about all the people we left behind, our best memories of them. I still have my counting the dots on the ceiling time I dream of the past during much of my present.

All of us, at one point or another, fail to live life in the present and instead live in the faded clips of the past. I find myself often wishing to go back. Embedded inside the past, our regret becomes our greatest fault, the dreams and hope--our greatest asset. The past destroys us in the current moment, or helps us build it.

Yet, in the end, we let go of the past, perhaps not entirely, but enough to let us imagine new futures. For the last year I've been unlearning. Unlearning my old misconceived notions of love, of sacrifice, of beauty...of happiness.

Sometimes the most beautiful thing about a moment is that it only comes once.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


I closed my gate, ready to lock it when I heard the door bell ring again. Leonard, my community host had just stopped by to say "good evening." Who could it be now? I opened the gate again to find Leonard standing there.

"I just thought you'd be happy to know that I bought Carine and I a Vibro."

I stood there. A bit shocked. Are my ears really that caked in dirt? A vibra--? I tried not to finish that thought.

"A-a what?"

"A vibro."

Nope. My ears aren't deceiving me.

"I'm not sure what that is."

"No! You must know! People in America use it all the time!"

I'm really hoping I am not having a talk with my community host about a "joystick," or whatever other good euphemism could describe that vibra--eugh!

"I've never heard of a vi..." I half lied. Maybe I have...maybe we just call it something different.


"Yes, no idea."

"Well," he said, ready for the finale. "It's that machine that you people use to shake the fat off. Carine and I want to lose weight."

Oh boy. A scam. How do I put this gently?

"It was 35 000 francs. It's the best quality."

Seventy bucks!? My god what a waste! I'm struck by the gullibility of this very intelligent, respected, and educated man. I suppose we all have our moments. I've been known to take ironic comments seriously, after all.

"Leonard, well, I hope your machine works out for you," I tried to say diplomatically, "but you should know that the best way to lose weight is just to get out and run. It costs nothing and you never have to worry about a machine that could break. I'm just saying."

"I thought you'd be happy," he tried a bit dejectedly.

"Goodluck?" I offered.

I closed my gate. Bless my lucky stars it was a phoney exercise machine he was talking about and not a...

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Hair-Raising Wisdom from the Barber Chair

“Well behaved women rarely make history” read the magnetized placard hanging lopsided on the fridge. A woman with a broad smile was plastered across it, the painting-esque ones from government posters in the 40’s or the Sears Roebuck catalogue. Her teeth were so white and her grin so wide that her teeth were a solid brick of white.

Speaking of teeth, my dentist told me that he didn’t picture someone like me working in a hair salon—maybe he was right. I certainly am the odd one out of everyone there. I’m looking older at nineteen than some of the ladies here (who I know are pushing forty), a regularly botox-ed countenance works wonders. My hair is probably enough to make most of the women there cringe.

Climbing up into the barber chair is a lot like climbing up onto the top of a mountain and happening upon a guru. Forget All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Kindergarten wasn't nearly as gorey with the details...All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned from a Hair Salon.

“I could never work at a Beverly Hills salon, like on those reality shows. There’s just too much drama. Did you hear about M—’s ex?” Lesson: Save the drama for your mamma.

“I’m not one to burn bridges…” Lesson: Don't burn bridges. Actually try not to burn too much of anything, including buildings, structures, hair, rubber, cakes, skin, and other sensitive glands. Acceptable burning includes campfires, yulelogs, marshmallows, candles, and creme brulee.

“I don’t think I attract drama…do you think I do? I see myself as really easy-going.” Lesson: Mind your own business and watch out for those involved in theater.

“She was just too catty.” Lesson: Keep cats, not catty humans.

“Ugh, she thinks this is tipping?” Lesson: Learn how to do simple tip calculations or risk getting a bald spot shaved in the back of your head by your barber.

And I heard two separate times that the best way to save money is to stop eating out. Gurus? Who needs 'em?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Secret Garden

Try this "cherise" on for size, nightshade plant, tamarillo, Chinese tomato, tree tomato, tomate de árbol, dutch eggplant, solanum betaceum...

Yellow and red in color, you bite off the tip of this fruit and slurp the blood red pulp and seeds out from the inside. It's sweet with a taste similar to passion fruit, but easier to eat than a passion fruit because you don't have to crush a hard thick membrane between your palms to open it. I can eat a whole bag of these in one sitting. I only stop when they're finished.