Thursday, November 8, 2007

A Few Updates

After looking over my past blog entries, I thought I’d go back and update you on a few things I brought up earlier.

Firstly, I may get to remember my time in Cameroon with actual souvenirs, instead of garbage, since I discovered that Douala has a trash disposal system more sophisticated than lighting a match. Since I’m stopping over there on Friday, I’ll be hauling all my trash along in the 2 hour cab ride. The amount I’ve been stockpiling has been greatly reduced, though, since I recently uncovered my household’s mystery dumping site. I’d tried to throw biodegradable things out on my own, but was always told just to give them to the housekeeper. Since I feel I’m a little past the age where I spit gum into my teacher’s palm, and let my mother wipe off my face, this simply would not do. I persisted, and was finally pointed towards the edge of the property, where I found a pile primarily consisting of plantain and vegetable peelings, but also containing some random packaging. Disappointed at the lost compost potential, I deposited my ‘decomposable’ selections, and felt a small weight off my shoulders.

I’ve actually been fairly impressed at the small amount of garbage I’ve accumulated here. Granted, I’m not the one who does the cooking, but I haven’t really bought much that requires a plastic package, and whenever I can, I make use of my organic MEC shopping bag. This particular bag was bought for reasons of practicality, but I have to admit that I felt a twinge of embarrassment when someone inquired whether I worked for the post. Judging by the herds of three inch heels hiking past me on rocky, rutted roads each day, I don’t think anyone would understand my argument of function over fashion. On that note, my boss actually commented that my pants were too wrinkly this morning. The washrooms have a half inch of ‘water’ on the floor, I have a mouse sharing my bed, and there’s a great chance that I’ll fall into a 3 foot deep gutter while walking home at night; but ironing should be a high priority. Right.

In regards to the rodent, he’s turned out to be more stubborn than I had expected. Despite my half-hearted attempts to ‘accidentally’ poison him by leaving out copious (for a mouse) quantities of crushed Advil, he’s prevailed in his mission to leave not one inch of my room un-pooped-upon. Though he sampled my first poisonous concoction, my second try at a mouse-sized cocktail of Advil and orange-flavoured Gravol didn’t seem to be his drug of choice. I could have gone one step further than that, but decided that adding anti-diarrhea medication and ex-lax might produce less than desirable results. So my one furry roomie remains, though I succumbed to temptation and killed a roach last night. It had made the poor decision to crawl across the bread bag I’d carefully suspended from my clothing line. Normally I just ignore them, but any creature should instinctively know that to come between me and my food will only end in tears, not to mention a swift blast of bug spray. When it comes to monstrous insects, I feel I’ve been somewhat demoralized.

My shower situation is another one in need of an update. On Monday, I caved and bought a metal coil water heater for about $3 from a walking street vendor with a large assortment of gadgets. I had been sold on this little contraption since last Saturday, when I stayed at Kasia’s house, and got to have a fairly warm bath. So, Tuesday morning I woke up early, plugged in my little heater, and sat down to breakfast, contentedly munching on bread while I waited for the water to heat. I’m convinced that cold showers are just part of the experience for me, because 40 minutes later, the coil had only heated the top inch of metal, and appeared to be defective. At the very least, I had learned an important lesson: Don’t buy electronics while sitting at a table eating lunch.

On another note, Regina, my embracing friend has failed to reappear. I saw her briefly on my way home that day, but she never showed at the night’s festivities. As she had moved her stretching/foot flailing regimen several metres over in the time that had past since our first meeting, I can only assume that she started off with good intentions, but ended up rolling in the wrong direction. Either way, I’m sure she’ll supply ample entertainment wherever she ends up.

As for myself, I’m heading into the field next week, so my posts and emails will be coming to a halt until around the 24th. Should you need to contact me, my phone should still be in service. If I’m unavailable, no need to worry, I’m sure everything's fine, and I'm just stuck in the mud somewhere – as I feel I’ve progressed from gutters, that is the only logical step.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Muea Market

I’ve discovered few things in Cameroon as exciting or overwhelming as a busy market. There are so many sights, sounds and smells, that my first trek into this foreign land was followed by a brief bout of mental exhaustion. This time, though, I was prepared. Armed with my coworker’s bargaining skills and a purpose, I went off in search of some fabric last Thursday morning.

We started off early, at around 8 am, and caught a cab for 200 CFA (about 40 cents Canadian). This is a higher fare than is required to go most places in Buea, so I wasn’t surprised when the cab took us around several twists and turns and we ended up in an area seemingly on the outskirts of town. A smile came to my face when the first thing I spotted was a table covered with books. They would have to wait, though. As distracting as books usually are for me, I had come here in search of something more vital. A previous solo attempt to purchase fabric in Buea town had resulted in me walking right out of the shop, refusing to believe the ridiculous claim that the fabric I wanted could not be cut and I would have to buy the whole roll. I was determined not to let this happen again.

We cut past the tables of books, and ducked through the various stalls until we came upon what one might classify as the market’s ‘fabric district’. Vibrant colours and bold patterns surrounded us, with piles of material stacked on tables and suspended in neat rows from lines strung across the wooden beams. It didn’t take long before I spotted the exact material I had wanted the previous day, yellow and purple, with a pattern of dots spiraling into petals. I was thrilled, but tried to appear nonchalant as Delphine negotiated with the vendor on my behalf. I observed quietly, and am now confident I could go it alone next week. I’ll give you an overview, but be forewarned, you will need to break out your acting skills unless you're incredibly passionate about negociation.

Upon spotting what you would like to buy, you casually inquire about the price, continuing to browse as though you are not really interested in the response. When they tell you, you feign shock and outrage that it should be so high. “For this one? No!” You then offer about half of what was quoted to you, and the scene is re-enacted by the vendor. He gasps incredulously, and then delves into a speech about the high quality of that specific cloth, gesturing towards the wax-dye guarantee. At this juncture, you should argue persistently for several minutes, crossing your arms and looking away obstinately, as though making eye contact would forfeit victory. Should the bargaining end without a reasonable price to agree upon, you walk away slowly, coyly intoning that you will look elsewhere. In my experience, you can often use this moment as an appropriate time to begin counting. Five seconds later, he will likely reappear and make his ‘real’ best offer. With a flash of scissors, and a quick tear, the fabric is measured out and folded neatly into a little black bag.You thank the man and pay, moving on to the next conquest.

Bargaining seemed to be great sport for Delphine and I was thankful for her stubbornness, as she got me several great deals before insisting on showing me the meat market. Since I had experienced excessive hissing and harassment the last time I went to this area (a meat market in every sense), I was not thrilled about the prospect of a repeat performance. Also, when it comes to viande, I'm of the 'ignorance is bliss’ mindset, and have no desire to see blood and limbs before they magically transform to food on my plate. I turned reluctantly in the direction she indicated, but promptly jumped back as a pile of freshly slaughtered cow barreled towards me at full speed. That little preview was enough for me, but Delphine continued eagerly down the lane, intent on completing my market experience by testing my gag reflex.

Among other unappetizing specimens, we passed piles of cow legs, rolls of tough, rubbery cow skin, and racks of ribs, all awash with blood and gore. Shuddering involuntarily, I watched as the cow that nearly ran me over was heaved onto the counter with a thud and a splatter of blood that ricocheted off the path directly in front of me. At the very least, I was now assured of a sound sleep that night, knowing that the angel of death could pass over my calves without hesitation. With that reassuring thought, I sidled past this scene of carnage and moved towards the dresses blowing welcomingly in the distance. The sights and smells at a market may be plentiful, but that doesn't mean I feel compelled to experience them all, especially when they splatter towards me without warning.

Fabric tucked safely under my arm, we navigated around tarps and stepped over garbage piles in search of the next item on my list; a wedding ring. Yes, I'm aware that wedding rings are not traditionally purchased by the bride. However, if I'm not mistaken, this type of jewelery is also traditionally accompanied by a cake and a dress, and not of lesser importance, a husband. I'm sure most girls pay more attention when reading over their guide books, and take the recommendation that should you wish to avoid harassment in foreign countries, you should claim to be married. I must have skipped this page in my haste to find giraffes and elephants, and I paid for it dearly. In addition to the catcalls and professions of love I was constantly receiving, I'd recently spent an entire weekend fending off the unwanted advances of a persistent acquaintance, and I'd had enough. In Cameroon, telling a man you're not interested, and have a boyfriend is apparently the same as batting your eyelashes and saying. "I'm just playing hard to get, if you stare awkwardly at me for long enough, eventually I'll denounce all ties to boyfriends back home and accept your repulsive offer to be my 'African lover'." Lesson learned (albeit a tad late) : a ring and an imaginary husband are desirable accessories for the solo female traveler.

Had I really been prepared, I would have asked my dentist to help me out with this quest at my last checkup, since I vaguely recall selecting a similar finger adornment after having my first tooth filled. Never again shall I take for granted the true value of such an accessory, when placed on the appropriate digit. My salvation appeared moments after leaving the meat market; sparkly yet subtle, and priced at 300 CFA. Peace of mind for about 60 cents Canadian. "I'll take it" I said, and plunked my money eagerly into the vendor's outstretched hand. After almost 2 hours at the market, I'd found everything I had come looking for. I bought us some sweet buns, and we sped back to work in a taxi. The day's mission was accomplished, but I'm sure I'll be back again next week.