Tuesday, January 27, 2009

National Lampoon's Southwestern Cameroon Vacation

So this past weekend I took a trip to the Southwest province to visit some friends before a provincial meeting and go on a hike out to some waterfalls. The hike and ensuing swim was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, but I'll get to that later. First things first: I had to get to the Southwest. Now I live in a small village. I don't have any big markets, not really any restaurants, there's only one real bar, and I don't have running water. As a result, I consider my life pretty rustic. I took one thing for granted though. One thing that I have that makes my life here so much easier than so many other PCVs in different regions. I have good roads. Beautiful, paved roads. Roads that are falling apart in some place, but are paved nonetheless. As soon as we left the West province, so went the roads. It was 2 hours of traveling a distance that would have taken me about 35 minute in the United States. It was 2 hours of perpetual speedbumps. God forbid our driver drove any slower than 100 km/h over the sharp turns that could have easily sent us off of a cliff to a flying, firey, Michael Bay-esque death. I suppose its enough to say I respect the difficulties faced by my fellow PCVs in the Southwest much more than I did before the trip.

After Deathrace 2008, I found my friends' posts in the Southwest to be truly awe-inspiring. I think my post has some beautiful scenery, I really do. But I've never seen anything as green as the forests of Menji and Lewoh. When the fog rolled into the valley on the morning I left, it looked like something you'd see in a National Geographic.

The hike itself was described to us by our friend Brad in simple terms. "It's like a 2 hour hike." Knowing Brad's ultra-laid-back attitude, I should have known he wasn't the kind of guy to use the intense language one needs to accurately describe the trek. Language like "exhausting," "not for the faint of heart," or perhaps most succinctly "vertical." All in all it took us about two and a half to three hours to climb/walk down the mountain to the base of the falls. We were guided along the trail by a local friend who called himself Rastking, and would alert us to his location (the trail itself was about one pace wide and the foliage was so thick you could only see so far ahead of you) by playing on a flute he brought with him. Near the end of the hike, I went on ahead of the group because Rastking told me there was only one trail to follow so I couldn't get lost. I felt like booking it a little so I took off. After I got down to the riverbed I was probably about 15 minutes ahead of the front of the group. In that time I got a little worried that maybe I made a wrong turn somewhere and ended up down or upstream from where everyone else was coming. Hearing the flute's music coming out of the woods a bit later was reassuring and singularly surreal.

After I got down there I was really in my element. I suppose in some ways I'm still an 8-year-old. I love climbing trees and rocks and rope bridges and going on adventures. Getting from one place to another at the base of the falls involved a lot of jumping from rock to rock and a lot of guessing which rocks would be slippery and which wouldn't. It was a great time. A few of us went swimming in the pool under the falls, and that was something I'll never forget. The roar of the cascading water, the breeze whipping this way and that, the way the water was refreshing but not freezing. I'm really glad I made it out there.

The way back was another story. Remember how I said getting from one place to another required guessing which rocks were slippery and which weren't? Well after a few hours of bouncing around surefootedly like a coked-out squirrel. I got a little cocky and guessed wrong. Feet went one way, body went another (read: into the damn river). I had my bag on at the time, and my digital camera didn't survive the immersion. Though, when I think about how close I was to having my head dashed open on a rock just below the waterline, I suppose breaking my camera wasn't that big of a deal (especially since I was able to get my pictures of the hike off of it).

Again, remember how I said it took us like two and a half hours to scale down the mountain? Well the hike back up was one of the single-most exhausting things I've ever done. My quads are still yelling at me. The way up was a lot quicker going though (An hour and a half, I think?), so I suppose that was a plus.

I've got some really good pictures, but I can't upload them here at my house. So check back here on Thursday or Friday and I should have them uploaded for ya.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

My dog > Terminix

Just a little mini-post, but I told my mom about this the other day and she got so grossed out I had to share it with everyone.

A few nights ago, before I got into bed, I noticed a spider about the size of my palm in the corner of my bedroom. I stood there and pondered what to do with it. Last time I saw one of these buggers, I just stepped on it. That resulted in a loooooot of spider guts all over my flip-flop and bedroom floor. Like, copious amounts of spider guts. I had to actually use paper towels to clean up this absurd amount of spider guts. So I'm sitting there trying to come up with a gameplan, and Gizmo walks into my room. He stands at my feet for a minute, notices the spider, and then very calmly walks over to the thing and just eats it in like two gulps. Looks back at me, wags his tail, and walks back into the den.

Awesome.

Friday, January 2, 2009

My thoughts in the first weeks and how they've changed in 7 months:

1) "It seems really, really dangerous driving around with 10 people in an '85 escort knock-off"

Travelling here in Cameroon is an absolutely mind-boggling mess. You can travel short distances on motocycle taxis, but they're too expensive to take on long trips. For said long trips, you have to take bush taxis. Bush taxis can vary in size from tiny compact cars to big ass vans. Regardless of size, however, you know you're not leaving until there are at least 4-8 too many people in the vehicle. I once drove from my provincial capital to my home with the following setup: Driver pressed against the driverside window with a teenage boy sharing the driver seat with him. I'm sitting between the driver and passenger seats straddling the gearshift (all the vehicles here are manual). There are two people in the passenger seat. 4 people in the backseat, 2 are women with children on their laps. One preteen boy basically lying across the laps of the other 2. 12 people in a compact car. At first it felt dangerous, now its commonplace. I remember just the other day thinking how luxurious it was to be the only person in the passenger seat.

2) "I'm really not comfortable eating from a community plate of fish with no utensils and dirty hands"

This was one of those things that if I hadn't gotten over, I'd never be able to eat anywhere but my house and the more expensive restaurants. In fact, the dining here in Cameroon has become one of the things I'm going to miss most in the states. Usually when out on the town around dinner time, you can walk up to any of the dozen or so women cooking fish on a makeshift grill and order some "poisson braise" while you wait at a nearby bar. They'll then grill you up a whole fish, throw it on a plate and bring it to whatever bar you're at. It's usually accompanied by a bowl of non-filtered water with which you can wash your hands. It's usually delicious, but there's almost no way to avoid getting sick the first few times while your body gets used to the new germs and such.

3) "This weekly malaria prophylactic sure is convenient!"

Every friday at around 10AM I take Mephloquin, which is a malaria prophylactic. In the beginning I thought it was convenient that I only had to take it once a week and I didn't experience any side effects. Well about a month or two in, I've started having the most horrific, vivid nightmares every friday night like clockwork. I usually wake up around 2AM in a cold sweat after dreaming about crazy stuff like murdering my family or my dog (actual examples). I could switch to another pill, which is taken daily. But the side effects for that pill include sensitivity to sunlight. And as an Irish/Ukrainian living 3 degrees above the equator, I don't really need any help getting sunburn.

4) "It's so nice having all these kids in the village know where I live and come visit me all the time!"

This is something that I imagine every Peace Corps volunteer, regardless of location, has to deal with. I'm lucky enough to have a big ass 10 foot wall surrounding my house so I can more or less set my own visitation hours. But I still get knocks on my gate at all hours of the day, even moreso now that I've gotten a dog that the kids love to play with. It's even worse at some of my friend's homes. I spent the night at one's place just recently, and she had kids knocking on her door and singing random crap in french at like 3 in the morning. Don't you have homes!? It's one of those things that comes with being the only white within 50 kilometers or so. You're a novelty.

5) "Jesus Christ washing my clothes by hand for the next two years is going to be awful"

I actually handwashed my clothes for two months before giving in and starting to pay kids to do it for me. Now I genuinely think its probably easier to do laundry here than in the states. The quality of the wash isn't as good, but where else can you get basically your entire wardrobe washed, dried, and folded for $1 USD?

6) "QUIT STOPPING THE CAR EVERY FIFTEEN MINUTES! IT SHOULD NOT TAKE 90 MINUTES TO TRAVEL 30 KILOMETERS"

Travelling au Cameroun is a joke, as mentioned in #1, but I gotta say I'm happy to be here because I now know that NOTHING will be able to test my patience in the states. I'm well on my way to becoming an absolute goddamn zen master. I once sat on a bus in 90 degree heat for two and a half hours while the driver got accosted by police. Luckily this was only about a month ago so I had gotten used to that sort of thing. If it had happened in my first week I probably would have killed myself/those around me.

7) "I'm really glad I have electricity in my house, but I think I'd rather have running water."

It sucks not having running water, it really does. Doing laundry, washing dishes, washing floors, showering, cooking, and anything else you need water for instantly becomes a hassle. But I'll say, after spending some time at posts without electricity, that it's way better than not having lights. You don't have lights, and your day is just over at 6:30 every night. There is just not a damn thing to do but go to sleep.

8) Man, defecating outside into a hole in the ground is really, really awful.

I've made it into a game. Now its like target practice!

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All in all these past 7 months have been pretty mindblowing. I've seen some insane things (bodies on the side of the road just left there after horrible car accidents, boiled monkey [delicious, but looks like boiled baby], etc). It's also made me more appreciative of life back aux etats unis. After bathing out of a bucket for this long, I'll never again complain about weak water pressure or low temperatures in a shower. It's also convinced me of what I want to do with my life back in the States. After seeing how corruption (Cameroon has been called the most corrupt country in the world by a number of sources) has crippled this country and its citizens in so many ways, I know that studying law back in the states is something I could really get into and enjoy.

So yeah. Such is my life.

Note added after posting: This post reads kinda bleakly, but you should all know I'm really, truly happy here and having a great time. Just felt like ranting a bit.