Monday, October 29, 2007

Living in Luxury

You can’t truly appreciate a hot shower and a nice restaurant until you’ve almost forgotten what they’re like. This is what I discovered this weekend when Kasia and I went to Douala for a party, and were temporarily mesmerized by the wonders that are electricity, indoor plumbing and clean linens.

Having been in Buea for a little under a month now, I have become fairly accustomed to a simpler way of life. I could say that I wake up with the crowing of roosters, but that would imply that roosters abide by the traditional ‘crow at sunup’ rule, and don’t go about it continuously throughout the night. There’s one bird in particular that I’m convinced has it out for me. He stands outside my window from about 4:30 onwards, screeching with more unbridled enthusiasm than any mild-mannered alarm clock could muster. After about 30 minutes with my head under my pillow, I decide my attempts to get back to sleep are futile, and I untangle myself from my mosquito net and roll out of bed.

Thinking vengeful thoughts of fresh chicken cutlets, I gather my toiletries and head down the hall. Presumably, the other 5 occupants of the house are undisturbed by the roosters, as the bathroom is usually available. Good, since I will need the time to silently coach myself before reluctantly pouring the first cupful of cold rainwater over my head. I had hoped that in time I would grow a thicker skin and become accustomed to this, but alas, no amount of mental trickery has enabled me to convince myself that these showers are ‘refreshing’, or ‘invigorating’, when that nagging voice of reality tells me they’re just plain cold.

Cold showers and disagreeable fowl aside, I’ve adapted. I wash my clothes in a tub outside, and brush away cockroaches without a second thought. Geckoes have become wall fixtures, and restaurants are bare structures housing a few thermoses of food and a television blaring either Nigerian movies, or WWE. Bread is yellow in colour, and typically a little bit dirty. Dirt schmirt! I might not eat the mystery meat residing in the back of my fridge in Calgary, but this is part of the culture! Arguably, it’s probably of the bacterial variety, but I digress…

I was in for a mild bout of reverse-culture shock when Kasia and I arrived in Douala, and were informed that not only did Christina have a functioning shower, but it was hot. Suddenly the bumpy 2 hours I’d spent in a taxi, wedged tightly between 3 other people seemed worth it. The festivities were going full swing, and though we were exhausted, we mingled and chatted, later having an English/French/ Arabic conversation while smoking sheesha with some of Christina’s neighbours. When I inquired about the late night food situation, our new acquaintance took it upon himself to take care of our tummies. At about 1am, we took a cab for a few minutes, and ended up outside a very nice restaurant, which appeared to have just closed for the night. Luckily our host was well connected, and we were quickly seated in the back portion of the restaurant, among several tables cloaked with spotless white linen and set with sparkling silverware. I was almost too busy taking it all in to notice the menu placed in front of me by our server. Salivating, and representing a true Albertan, I ordered steak with fries. My tendency to inhale food like a ravenous beast is a well known trait, so you would be shocked at how slowly I savoured every last bite of that meal, even finishing after my two companions. The prospect of eating a piece of meat that was not intestine or skin, and couldn’t look back at me was tremendously appealing after a month of wondering what becomes of the ‘normal’ part of the cow.

We ended our evening in a nightclub, where I was shocked to see a great variety of ethnicities. I felt almost like I could be at a bar in Canada – it was such a mixed group. Returning to the apartment quite late, this wonderful evening was capped off when I saw the soft mattress covered by crisp (freshly laundered) sheets where I was to sleep. I had no trouble dozing off that night, though I awoke with the bitter remembrance that my brief sojourn into normalcy was almost over. Not before taking advantage of Christina’s wonderful tub, though. The water was indeed hot, and I confess that I probably showered much longer than economy would approve, but I didn’t care! My rainwater at home would keep just fine for the next 6 weeks, and who knew when such an opportunity would present itself again?

All I needed now to attain nirvana was a trip to the bakery. I’d seen several on our way into the city, and had heard tantalizing tales of fresh (not to mention clean) bread, pastries, and sausage rolls. Though in a neighborhood that was apparently sketchy (we were told to only bring what money we planned to spend) the bakery did not disappoint. A huge glass display case lined an entire wall, and was filled with the most delectable looking pastries imaginable. I wanted everything, but contented myself with a ham and cheese croissant, along with some bread and cheese to take home.

We departed early in the afternoon, and arrived home before dark. Not wanting to waste precious hours of sunlight, I dragged my laundry outside and set to the task of scrubbing. Some honest labour felt in order after such luxury as I’d experienced in the previous 24 hours, and my clothes would not clean themselves. Feeling satisfied upon completing this little chore, I made myself a pot of tea and relaxed. Several cold showers may await me, but I had fresh bread and cheese, and was exceedingly happy.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Hug first, ask questions later

As a white girl in Cameroon, it's inevitable that you get a lot of stares, and a lot of (often unwanted) attention. Whether from children who shout "white man!" as you pass, men who ogle you and ask "How can we meet again?" before even knowing your name (or if you would actually want to meet them again at all) or ladies who introduce you to their fair skinned baby, exclaiming that "she looks just like you". Walking down an ordinary street, I meet more people than I can remember, and am often searching my memory when I happen to bump into someone more than once, and have no clue who they are, or how I know them. People are friendly and curious pretty much wherever you go, which is why I wasn't overly shocked when I met Regina this morning.

I was hiking up the hill on my way to the internet cafe, past the Alliance Franco-Camerounaise, when I glanced to my right, and saw a middle aged lady lying on her back on the edge of a bridge. Her shoes were cast off beside her, and she seemed quite occupied waving her feet in the air. Before I could imagine her reason for assuming such a posture, she sprung to her feet, arms outspread, and embraced me like an old friend. For a moment I stood there stiffly, gazing down at the top of her head, and trying to recollect if I'd had a previous (but likely less striking) encounter with this petite, affectionate woman. This time however, my memory did not fail, as I truly had no idea who she was. Her arms remained around me for several moments, and it was only after asking a few questions, that she stepped back and I could take a good look at my tiny assailant.

Barefoot, about 4 feet tall, and garbed in traditional Cameroonian dress, her personality seemed fairly to explode right out of her small stature. A brief conversation followed, in which she inquired about what I was doing in Cameroon, where I was working, and where I lived. Subtlety does not seem to be highly valued here, and before we had even introduced ourselves, she demanded where exactly I lived, and whether she could come visit me. Veering away from this awkward proposition, I came up with a compromise: I politely told her that I was planning to attend an art exhibition at the Alliance this evening, and if she would like to see me again, we could meet there. I started off again, wondering what the evening held in store, and knowing that Regina was one Cameroonian I wouldn't soon forget.

Pics, finally!

Children watching a man ride a skeletal horse on the beach in Limbe.

Eating 'poufpoufs', beans, and 'pap' with Mary, Bernis, and Awa.

At a bar in Mutengene with Robert and Justin.

An impromptu game of soccer at the beach in Limbe.

Monday, October 22, 2007


A few nights ago I was awoken by the sound of scurrying. I had seen the occasional mouse darting around the house, so I was unconcerned about the night pursuits of this particular creature. That was until I found it's rather generous
'contributions' next to my pillow the next evening. A germaphobe to the core, I've been proud of my ability to shrug off the occasional lack of soap and water while here, but this was asking too much. Even my economy-sized bottle of hand sanitizer cannot save me from textile contamination.

Upon further inspection, I discovered the mouse's lair; a cozy little corner under my bed which was housing not one mouse, but two. How quaint. Having been chummy with all sorts of critters as a child, the prospect of sharing my room with them was not the issue, but that was when they ( and their droppings) were confined within four very separate walls. My bed was, is, and will always be off limits! So I'm left with a problem. Either I kill the mouse, or live with the mouse's residue. Option number two is not really an option, so I'm forced into a moral dilemma. Catching the mouse and setting it free does not seem either possible or practical, since it could always return, and mouse catching resources seem to be rather scarce here. A man approached my friend yesterday, selling a capsule he claimed could both kill rats, as well as fend off indigestion, but I was not convinced. Call me crazy, but those two problems seem like they should remain separate for several very good reasons.

Back to the situation at hand, I have lain awake under my mosquito net in a state of dread. What will the mouse go after tonight? Will it climb the curtain and disgrace the pristine pile of books lying defenselessly on the corner of my table? (Horror of horrors!)Or will I reach into my pocket looking for peanuts one day and find something not at all peanut-like? (insert involuntary shudder here) Last night I spotted a cricket heading in its direction and was silently praying that the two would finish each other off. As they are actually about the same size, this scenario did not seem as improbable as one might suppose. Alas, the two disappeared silently under the bed as co-conspirators, in all likelihood plotting their joint attack and toasting to my untimely demise.

I fear this stupid rodent may reduce me to hanging my belongings from the ceiling and sleeping in a hammock! Well now, this is just getting ridiculous... Unfortunately for my furry fiend, I have a slight presentiment that tomorrow may find me trotting off shamefully,in search of the indigestion/rat poison man.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Lost in the Dark

I have an embarrassing confession to make: Up until early this week, I could not find my way home. As independent as one who still lives with their parents can be, I pride myself on my navigational abilities in Calgary, even when they sound something like "take the number three until Safeway, and then walk three blocks east until you see the yellow house with the picket fence." Though some have criticized this method of navigation, (citing the practicality of 'masculine' directions including street names and numbers) I prevail. If I told Irene to turn left at the place where I returned the gross pizza, she would know where I meant! But I digress...

In Buea, street names will not get you very far, as very few streets have them, and even if they did, they would not be overly visible when walking home in the dark - a time when it's often advisable to pay greater attention to where you're placing your feet than your overall destination, in order to avoid falling in a hole. Having slipped into the gutter twice now, I consider myself entitled to give this type of advice. Anyways, the lack of street names and lights aside, I live about 2 km up a rocky, deep-rutted hill, where I've been told taxis dare not go. As such, I've waited at the office every night for my first week and a half for my hosts to drive me home. They are big fans of toiling past 9, and I've paid for my fear of the unknown with many late nights.

Finally, I decided I'd had enough. It was time I grow up and conquer the dark! All I needed was a plan of action. Firstly, I would have to formulate my own set of directions, which I did one night on the aforementioned ride home. Now pay close attention - if you come to visit, this is how you get to my house:

Get the cab to drop you off at the Gendarmerie Brigade Station. Then walk left up the road until you come to your first right turn. Take it, and go down the road until you see the sign on the ground (to the left) for Primary school, and then turn left. Follow the rocky road further up the hill, curving slightly in both directions to avoid veering off onto a smaller road. You will pass an Orange phone stand on your right, and then a house with plantains hanging outside. Keep going until you hit a slight fork in the road, where several tree branches are stacked. Go right. The road will curve down and up, left and right, and you must follow it (past a pink house on your right)until you can no longer go in this direction. Turn left to continue upwards about 3 houses and you're there.

I repeated my 'directions' several times for good measure, and set out alone and determined one night - and I made it. My 'feminine' directions came in handy in a way I hadn't expected, and I will be mocked no more! Those of you who still disagree are welcome to navigate in your own style, but I suggest you bring a flashlight; it's all uphill after the plantains...

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Three in a Bed

...and the little one said "rollover!" Oh, such a familiar childhood song, recited with laughter whilst imagining sleeping with so many people in a single bed. This is no longer just a nostalgic song to me, but a life experience - although the little one was doing more rolling than I was...

This past weekend, I was lucky to travel to Mutenguenay and Limbe with Justin, a Cameroonian AIESECer, and Robert, a German trainee who is also living in Buea. The trip to Mutenguenay was a short one, only about 20 minutes in a taxi, but I was quite happy to partake in a local refreshment of palm wine once we arrived. I was pleasantly surprised by the sweet taste of the slightly fizzy beverage. Tasty and dangerous, I thought, as I had to ask if it actually contained alcohol.

Our evening progressed into food, beer, and eventually dancing at the local bar, until it was finally time to head back. I had met my 'roomie' Josephine earlier, and we had spent the night in a large group. I, trying to avoid using the 'toilets', and she dancing gracefully with her baby bundled on her back. We hiked through the darkness to the house, and retired to our rooms. I won't deny that I was surprised to find two more children there, sleeping on a mattress on the floor, their tiny bodies posed awkwardly in slumber. For a moment I felt guilty to think that they would have been sleeping in the bed were it not for me, but then I turned my mind to the situation at hand. I was sharing a bed with two other people, a feat I hadn't deemed possible until confronting it at that moment.

Being a leggy, sprawling sort of individual, I suddenly became acutely aware of my arachnid -like sleeping tendancies. At one point in my life, I awoke to my sister's accusations of having 'rolled over her head' in my fitful dreaming state, an unfortunate event which resulted in me being called "spider-legs" for a brief yet traumatizing period of time. Now I had real cause for concern, though. What if I rolled over the baby? My sleeping sheet provided minimal assurance, as I knew that though it might confine my flailing limbs, its efficient cotton construction was no match for the steamroller that is me.

I decided that my best strategy would be to position myself sideways on the very edge of the bed and tuck one leg between the bedframe and the wall. This was not necessary, however, as the baby alternated between rolling towards me (terrifying), and wailing. When this failed to keep me conscious, my overactive imagination kicked in, creating all manner of scenarios involving me accidentally smothering the poor babe, and subsequently having to explain what happened the next morning. So I had a 'white night' that night, but rose with the comfortable consciousness of one who has finally found a practical purpose for excessive imaginings.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Reflections on Garbage

One thing that's become increasingly difficult to ignore in Cameroon is the trash. Walk down the street and you'll see an incredible assortment of rubbish - the soles of shoes, plastic wrappers, tissues, discarded clothing. The first night I was here, I was scandalised to come across an old brassiere; soiled and splayed across the road in an rather unladylike fashion.

Living with a Cameroonian family, I had noticed the absence of the ever-present can in 'standard' places such as the washroom and the kitchen, and had also witnessed the casual tossing of a tissue into a ravine. As for my own refuse, I've been keeping it in a ziplock bag in the naive hope that a suitable drop off would shortly be found. However, having bit my curious tongue for the past week, I finally decided to just ask about it, and when my boss replied that Cameroon's "waste management facilities" were non-existent, I was horrified, though I can't say I was surprised.

This got me thinking, though. How much garbage do we each accumulate, especially in the western world, only thinking about it as far as the curb? After being here for only a week, I know it won't be long before my little ziplock is truly put to the test, but I can't stand the thought of just throwing it into the woods. Which got me wondering, to some extent, isn't that what we already do? We dispose of our garbage in a 'civilised' fashion, but then it just gets dumped somewhere out of our direct line of vision. "Out of sight, out of mind" we think, having done our civic duty by depositing it efficiently at the end of the drive, to disappear magically once we return. Can you imagine if you put out the trash on Thursday morning, and it just STAYED THERE!?

Seeing my own accumulation of detritus every day has really made me ponder more effective consumption of goods, and methods of disposal, and I'm planning on doing a much better job recycling when I come home to facilities that actually exist. I pity the perplexed men at the depot when I burst into song over the joys of the three Rs. For now, let you all be forewarned, when I return to Calgary, my bags won't be bursting with gifts, but three months' worth of Q-tips and kleenex.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

White Man

In Cameroon, I am an obvious minority, and am therefore a very interesting subject. For some of the children in particular, the only white people they've ever seen are on television. Therefore, when a caucasian person is spotted, they are generally greeted with shouts of "La Blanche!" or "Whiteman!" from children and adults alike. I was warned about this before, but as most children were in school when I arrived, did not get to experience it in full force until my third evening here, during a drive through the tea growing area of 'Saxonhoff'. Everywhere we went, children were shouting "whiteman" at our passing car. At one point, we had stopped to buy some vegetables, and a little girl stared inquisitively at me for a full 10 minutes. I smiled and waved, and before long, we were both giggling. Suddenly, it seemed as ridiculous to me as it was for her that I am white.

Friday, October 5, 2007


After a rather restless night listening to the incredibly loud rain outside, it was time for me to depart Douala for Buea, the town where I'll be living for the next 3 months. There was so much going on outside, I felt as though I was gaping like a codfish. The AIESECers accompanied me to the place where I to catch a taxi. Having packed very densely, I was especially grateful for their help with my luggage. After walking down several streets, we arrived at the area where I was to catch my taxi. It's best to select a taxi that is almost full as the taxi will wait for hours in order to fill every seat. However, when I say fill every seat, I mean four people in the back, and three people in the front. I was told that the front was the better place to be, and I hastily climbed in. Here I must point out that the level of comfort is entirely dependant on which side of the front seat you are occupying, and the size of the other person sharing your seat. I was lucky in this instance, as the man who sat next to me was of a relatively slim build. I said my godbyes to the AIESECers outside and we were off. More wild driving ensued, punctuated by the occasional stop to fill the gas tank or buy food from vendors along the road. This was not the most comfortable drive I have ever experienced - granted, it was fairly brief, but the potholes and the seatbelt digging into my hipbones made it less than pleasant. You can imagine my relief when the man sharing my seat disembarqued early and I had the seat to myself. My relief, however, was short-lived. A man of more generous proportions soon showed up at the front window and peered in. I tried to camouflage the dread on my face as I shifted meekly over to sit on the cup-holder. I was not looking forward to the inevitable rearranging of my internal organs that must be required to accomodate this new passenger. Fortunately, the cup-holder proved more comfortable than expected, due to a coat that had been placed on it, possibly for this very type of situation. We arrived shortly in Buea, where I had ample time to stand in the rain, and reflect on the true meaning of carpooling.

Arrival at last!

After a few flight delays, I finally landed in Douala! My irrational paranoia caused me to set not one, but three alarm clocks at my hotel room the night before, but this did not seem to matter,as my nervousness prevented me from sleeping anyways.
Upon my arrival, I was swarmed by people wanting to 'help' me with my baggage. As I've learned, this means try to take it from a weary passenger and then demanding a ridiculous fee. I was doing fine avoiding this until the very end, when one rather persistant guy managed to pull my backpack away from me in the crowd and carry it for about 4 meters out of the door. For this unwanted 'help' he tried to get me to pay him 10 euros! Luckily I was saved by the MC president, Wilfred and whisked away with Catherine into a taxi. Here came my first shock - the roads were so crowded with people walking, on motorbikes, and in cars. With everyone going in different directions, this seemed like a prime example of organized chaos, but somehow we avoided hitting those that we passed within millimetres. At one point, we turned into a narrow street only to discover that there was already an oncoming vehicle ( and apparently no room for opposing traffic). My first thought was that we would have to back out and take an alternate route, but in Cameroon, they make room, with both vehicles climbing sharply onto the steep banks to either side and driving at about a 45 degree angle to pass each other. We arrived shortly at our destination of the MC house, and I was introduced to Thierry, Bernis, and a common occurence - a blackout. For a moment I rummaged through my bag in search of a flashlight until I realized that the darkness was of no great concern to the rest of the house's occupants, though they lit candles shortly thereafter (quite possibly for the benefit of the disoriented foreigner). We were briefly acquainted, and then left with the other intern, Christina, to enjoy some typical Cameroonian street food. We wandered down the street for a few blocks ( avoiding gutters and holes) until we came to our destination, and settled down to our meal of roasted fish, cassava, and an enormous beer. I discovered quite quickly that wasting food is taboo, and was frankly informed by Christina that since she had to eat the fish head when she arrived, now it was my turn. I gazed down at the cloudy, crispy eye with a slight sense of foreboding, and was much relieved when informed that the eye should be consumed last. My fate was momentarily delayed. When the last fin had been eaten, the time had come. This type of fish is served with a spicy sauce, and I fooishly thought that it would be wise to dunk the eye in a generous amount of it to camouflage any unnappealing flavours or textures. Key word - foolish. After tackling the strangely rubbery/hard eye, I was in a disgusting, dribbly, nose-running state of regret. Chugging beer was to no avail, as I attempted to cover my shameful dribbling with my hand. I had forgotten to bring tissues, and there wasn't a napkin in sight. Thierry saved the situation by buying some from a street vendor, but the day ended with several lessons. Among them that tissues should always be at hand when dealing with unfamiliar food and haste of spicing.