Monday, September 24, 2012

To please my mother...a blog post.

Edit: Started this post on Saturday but decided to wait until I figured everything out before publishing it.

So I was chatting with my mom on Facebook this morning. (Isn't it great having parents who wake up at 4 AM? And know how to use Facebook?) For the past few days she has been insisting I write a blog post so that people don't ask her if I'm doing ok. Moms. My response? "I'm not doing anything blog-worthy! I go to work. I come home. I sleep. I shower sometimes."

Lo and behold, as soon as I finishing discussing this with her something of note happens. I decide to go get a snack. While this alone is not really something worth blogging about, my experience, which probably lasted about 45 seconds, was fairly interesting.

So I live above a mini-mart. On Saturdays I usually treat myself by buying a snack from there. Things usually purchased: Petit Dej (literally "breakfast") a type of very thin chocolate chip "digestive". A yogurt. (self-explanatory) Fanta.

Things I do not purchase but frequently stare at: the un-refrigerated cartons of eggs, Pringles (for like $700), and of course...La Vache Qui Rit (Laughing Cow). Cheese. The food of my dreams. While I had originally assumed this cheese was as overpriced as the Pringles (also it was not in the refrigerator) and therefore not worth it, I did a little math. You see, my Petit Dej cookies cost 350 CFA. That's about $0.70 for a pack of 8 cookies. La Vache Qui Rit costs 800 CFA. "Ridiculous!" I thought to myself in my first few weeks here, "That is simply too overpriced and un-refrigerated for my tastes!" tastes have changed. And I did a little research. As it turns out, La Vache Qui Rit is one of those cheeses that you don't have to refrigerate. As it also turns out, 800 CFA is only about $1.50. I pay $4 for that stuff  the US.

So I made a decision this week. Saturday, in celebration of completing my 3rd week here, I was going to buy the cheese. I was going to eat cheese for the first time since leaving American soil and I was so excited.  (All of my Wisconsin readers are groaning at my decision to buy crappy cheese. But you know what? Wisconsin has cheese. Yaounde...not so much.)

All week I have been counting down to cheese day.

I should have known that it was not meant to be.

Saturday rolls around. I grab some money and stuff it in my jeans pocket and start to head out the door. It's pouring outside. "I guess I'll wait a little while longer" I sigh to myself. I read a book. I take a nap. I pace back and forth. Finally it stops raining. CHEESE DAY! So I head out the door and downstairs. My building is 4 or 5 stories high and I'm pretty close to the top. As I walk down I pass the sounds of cooking, arguing, watching poorly-dubbed American tv and I finally get to the big courtyard at the bottom preparing myself to greet the guard who controls the gate to the building. Except he's not there. In his place stands a soldier. Not just any soldier, but a guy fully decked-out in a uniform and a helmet. Oh yeah, and he's armed. I quickly slide past him and peek out from the gate. Only to realize all of the shops are closed.

"Hmm...this probably isn't the greatest place for a lone American to be right now." I think to myself. So I do what anyone else would have done in this situation. I turn around and walk through the gate again. The guard stares at me, almost glares, and I nod and mutter a quick "Bonjour" hoping maybe he'll offer up some explanation to the helpless white girl. Nope. Not even a nod back. I high-tail it back upstairs and collapse into bed as the dreaded realization dawns on me: Today will not be cheese day.

So what was actually going on? You may ask.
Well, it was not as I had assumed when I quickly facebook messaged my brother saying "THERE IS A MILITARY COUP OUTSIDE MY APARTMENT!" (Yeah, sorry Alex...) It was not, as we later decided, people protesting an increase in fuel prices. What happened was simply this: The president went to visit somebody in the hospital. Right near where I live. And they have to close down the whole street for that. Unfortunately I didn't find this out until Monday morning, so I remained cheese-less throughout the weekend.

Next Saturday. Next Saturday I shall get my cheese.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Lizard and I (Wicked, anyone?)

So while apparently (not that anyone in my family other than occasionally my mom cares about football) the "match of the football season" for the midwest was going on last night. Well folks, here in Yaounde, we had our own little match as well. No, not Bears vs Packers or anything like that. This was Lizard vs Elena.

The Scene
So there I was, around 7 pm, chatting happily online with Sean and anticipating an early-to-bed kind of night after a week of being awoken to the beeping of taxis at 6 AM. (Ugh, that's for another post...) I hear a squeak. My first thought: "That better not be a bat." The thing about bats is that if you don't know when the bat entered the area, and you've slept in that room, you have to get a rabies shot. Simple as that. So, I casually make my way over to the light switch (it gets dark around 6 pm here) and I look at the corner where I heard the noise. "Nope! No bat, phew. Just that paint chip...wait a minute." That was no paint chip. Tan colored, about the size of my index finger, with jet black eyes. It was a lizard and it was staring at me and I was terrified.

Now at this point in the story I should let you all in on something. I spent most of my summers growing up at camp. I've slept in the woods. I was a girl scout. I was a camp counselor for four years. I met my boyfriend at summer camp. I've had a chipmunk run across my bare feet before. And I hate creepy crawlies. You know what I mean. I get itchy at the sight of a spider, I get jumpy at the prospect of having to kill a giant centipede crawling down my wall, and apparently I cry when I see a lizard in my bedroom.

So here's what happened. I stared at it. It stared back. Both of us terrified of the other creature who had suddenly made its presence known. I started frantically typing to Sean, "LIZARD IN BEDROOM OMG WHAT DO I DO HOW DO I GET IT TO GO AWAY I JUST WANT TO GO TO SLEEP AND NOT HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT DYING OF GROSS LIZARD DISEASE!" (Which I apparently decided was a thing that could happen to me) Our conversation essentially goes like this:

Sean: Trap it in a bowl and set it free.
Sean: Trap it in anything and set it free.
Sean: Take some deep breaths and ignore it and maybe it will go away.

So it eventually crawled back into the hole from whence it came and I thought all was right again with the world. Until about ten minutes later it got brave again and poked its little head out of the hole.

"Go away!" I said to it in my best calm and lizard-scolding voice.

We were obviously still both terrified. It was clear that I was going to have to spend the night locked in a room with this lizard. I had considered the option of being protected by mosquito netting, except that my mosquito netting has a large, gaping hole in it. (Effective, I know) So I zipped up my backpack and duffel bag, ensuring that no lizard could infiltrate it and open up a hopping lizard night club in my toiletries bag. Then, I thought about what I could do. Eventually I adopted the strategy of wrapping myself in my sheet (even though I was hot from worrying about the lizard) and falling asleep by the light of the computer. Like a little kid with a nightlight, I was hoping that my magical computer light would ward off the enemy long enough to allow me to fall asleep.

I slept fitfully, waking up every so often to make sure there wasn't a lizard up my nose or something and in the morning..he was gone. Or at least, he was not in the spot he was in before.


So here's to you, mister lizard friend. Wherever you are. (Please don't say you're in my backpack.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

All quiet on the Cameroonian front...

So I suppose I owe you all a blog post, but I must say that things are relatively uneventful over here. I know, I know, I'm in a foreign country! How can things be boring? But well, I'm at work most of the time. I guess I should comment on some of the many different trains of thought that run through my head during the day, but they seem to be escaping me at the moment.

Let's talk about eating, because it's one of my favorite things.

No matter how hard I try, I never seem to be eating enough for my Cameroonian comrades. Yesterday we had a visit from a Kenyan woman who runs an organization for African women's rights. Unfortunately, the stagiares (interns) were not invited to participate in the actual meetings and such, which is sad because she seemed like someone I would have enjoyed networking with, but she did invite us to eat lunch with her. It was nice to have a conversation in English for once, although I found myself speaking in sort of a weird accent. I think I tend to do that a lot. When I'm around one of my very dear friends from England on her occasional visits to the U.S., I feel as though I round out my vowels a little bit more and speak in a lighter voice. Also she kept making these high-pitched noises that sounded like "MMMMMMMM!", but I'm pretty sure they were in no way related to the food she was eating. Anyway, so she invited us to eat a meal consisting of....any guesses? Anyone? I'll give you a hint: Chicken and plantains. All the while we are discussing how she loves to eat and how she doesn't understand people going on diets. She says that once you know hunger truly, you see food, you eat it. We joke about American diet fads and I manage to scarf down my plantains. I pick all of the meat off of the chicken as everyone crunches bones around me and I try to finish quietly. "Please, PLEASE don't make me eat the bones again. I'll eat a hundred more plantains if I never have to eat chicken bones again!" I offer up a silent prayer.

You'll be pleased to know that my prayers were answered. However, I was staunchly criticized for the way I ate my chicken, and told that I "didn't really eat" because there were still parts left on the chicken.

Meanwhile, the American (and oddly enough Senegalese) food cravings abound:
-CHEESE (as expected, there is no cheese here. It's just too hard to ship/store. They have La Vache Qui Rit in Bastos for like $8000)
-Poulet yassa
-Cheese, lettuce, and tomato sandwich (yeah..weird...I know)
-Waldorf salad
-Tacos (this one haunts me.)
-Lee's Garden. Sesame delight.
(Let's be honest, sushi, tacos, and Chinese food all count as American food the way it's prepared in the U.S.)
-Plantains (Wait, were you listening? Caught you!)
I'm sure if you asked Sean he could give you a much more detailed list, as I inform him of pretty much every craving I have. The good news is, after living in the land of Beer and Cheese for a year, I may finally go back to a semi-normal body weight. (Ach, those Americans and their diet talk!)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

In which I do NOT ride a motorcycle on a bumpy dirt road, thankyouverymuch

Yesterday I went with my friend Audrey to her aunt's house. She lives in Yaounde, but definitely on the outskirts. On the way there we took two different taxis (two? three?) I don't actually remember, but it was definitely more than one and less than four.

The point is, it's really far and taxis don't go there super frequently. I appreciated this when we got to the house, we sat around back where there was a really huge mountain (but not Mt. Cameroon) to look at, blissfully distanced from the "BEEP BEEP BEEP. BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP" of downtown Yaounde. I helped wash some dishes and tried to help cook, but was terrified of the way they wield knives here. (Cue Senegal flashbacks to being mocked for my onion cutting skills) They basically cut things like onion slices and plantain peels the way people peel apples with knives. So we decided that I would learn how to cook by observation. Most of the morning was spent with me entertaining the 4 month-old baby while they cooked and people asking me what country I'm from every time I met somebody new. This seems to be a common occurrence. Apparently I sound "francophone" but "not French". Meaning it sounds as though French is my native language, but I don't have an American accent or a French accent. We have an interesting conversation about how "most white people are racist and they go up to Africans and try to rub the dirt off of their skin in Europe." Yeah. Not that I've experienced anyone trying to wipe the powder off of my skin or anything...

Anwyay, so we ate some chicken, they goaded me into eating the top of the chicken bone like they do (Never again), and then Audrey and her cousin suggested we go down to the main road so they can charge their phone credits. We did not charge their phone credits. What ended up happening, as usual, is that everyone stared at me and shouted things at me. This lady shouts across the street for us to come into her shop, as she has fish imported from the White House. Mmmhm...ok. So we go into her restaurant and the two other girls pick out a fish. (Seriously? Didn't we just eat chicken five minutes ago?) Also these fish were raw and just hanging out on a counter top right near the oven. Now I'm not super picky about FDA regulations while traveling, I adhere to the 10 second rule, thank you. So we tell the lady I'll share with Audrey and she leads us to the "Section VIP", giving us the option to sit in areas Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela. We choose Nelson Mandela. I drink a tonic.

On returning to the house, we find ourselves just missing a huge downpour and we hang out inside with the baby for a little while. Eventually a TON of people show up for Audrey's uncle's monthly meeting of the like Super Manly Men's club or something and the kids' table in this instance becomes the pantry. So we eat in there. We talk. They eat. More peanuts are circulated around. (Cameroonians eat peanuts like it's their job.) The food was basically more plantains for me and beef hooves which I casually avoided. Eventually it gets dark and we decide it's probably time for us to head back. We walk down to the main road and someone says "We'll just take a couple of motorcycles up the hill." here's the thing about motorcycles and me. My mother has told me, in the United States where roads are paved, that should someone ever offer me a motorcycle ride, there is no way I should ever do that. So I guess around here motorcycles are like cheap taxis. You smush three people on one and head on your way. No.Way. I continue to resist their explanations of "it's ok, we'll put you in between two of us" and eventually Christian and I decide to walk up the hill. So we catch a taxi, driving one hour in between two girls belting out Celine Dion, and finally we arrive home. Yippee! Home!

Except the guard to my apartment has locked the gate and gone to hang out with his buddies. I should note at this point that Audrey is an hour late for a mass that she is supposed to be singing in. So she makes a few calls, we wait about twenty minutes for him to unlock the gate and fetch the guard to unlock the stairs (at least I'm really safe?) and I get home, culture shock abounding, and collapse into bed.

Yeah, it was one of those days.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Again with the pamphlets!

Looks like more pamphlet folding lined up for today. The pamphlets themselves are really interesting though, I'll get to that. I suppose I should explain a little bit more about what exactly I'm doing here and how this organization works.

So for those of you totally out of the loop, I'm getting a Masters of French Studies with a concentration in international development from the University of Wisconsin through their Professional French Masters Program. As part of the degree requirement, one must intern abroad in a French-speaking country. For the most part, this means France; however this year we do have a few people in other countries. (Haiti, Canada, Congo-Brazzavile...etc) So I'm here for three months to work for a women's health/rights organization called RENATA.

RENATA works mostly with young girls who experience teenage pregnancy, but they really do a lot of other things as well. Their biggest thing is the formation des tantines. Essentially, they go into regions and find teenage mothers who they believe are qualified to counsel others, and they train them to open up an association in their region where they counsel girls on matters concerning sexual health. This includes pregnancy, rape, incest, breast ironing, and a boatload of other issues. It's pretty efficient in the sense that you hire people who understand the problem very well already and they open the associations are autocratic, so there is not a lot of intervention from the main group. They also work on other projects outside of the associations on things like gender equality and birth control.

That being said, the pamphlet that I've been folding is for kids in elementary school. It's essentially a mini coloring book entitled "Prevention des abus sexuels sur les enfants dans les ecoles primaires et maternelles" (Prevention of sexual abuse of children in elementary school) It still shocks me occasionally that incidence of sexual abuse is so prevalent in young children here that these pamphlets are necessary. They include activities like "Color in the parts of the body where you don't want to be touched!" And "BooBoo is sad because somebody touched him and he did not want them to. When are you sad?"

The pamphlet also includes a section on gender equality and how girls can grow up to be the president or a lawyer or anything else and how boys can help out around the house! It's all very interesting, but again, it kind of takes you aback when you realize something like this is necessary.

Thursday, September 6, 2012


Today was a little rough. Please, no pity, it was just one of those days where it really dawned on me that I'll be away from my loved ones for another three months. It's not a long time for some, but I'm someone who likes to be settled, and moving to Cameroon just after becoming settled in Madison gets me a little down sometimes. The title of my blog is "Forever Wandering", and it's true that I often find myself moving around from one place or another, but that doesn't  mean I totally enjoy the wandering every step of the way. It didn't help that my friends were at the German organization today and will be tomorrow, and I essentially spent the entire day working on my project alone. They're both interns that finish up working at RENATA tomorrow (Friday). I know I'll see them outside of work, but it's nice to have a little support system from 8 AM-3 PM(sort of). about that "courbe en U"...(It's a PFMP thing.)

As previously stated, not much to report although there are some interesting ant-like creatures parading around the bathroom sink.

With love from Yaounde and more interesting posts hopefully to follow,

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

They put sugar on their popcorn....

I saw a guy wearing a White Sox jersey today. It was a Michael Jordan jersey. That's hilarious, by the way, for those of you who aren't baseball fans.

Last night after posting that blog entry I had another one of the incidences where I'm in my pajamas, getting ready for bed, and I hear shouting from the door. "ELENA! ELENA! TU ES-LA?" (Elena, Elena, are you there?) It was M. Le Docteur, aka the big head boss guy. He informed me that I would be going to the headquarters of the German organization which finances RENATA in the morning to learn more about their partnership. This is awesome since I'm mostly here to learn about how a non-profit organization functions in a developing country.

"This is where all of the white people live"
That's what my colleague told me as our taxi arrived. The organization is located in the neighborhood that houses most of the embassies, called Bastos. I live pretty far from Bastos, so her statement wasn't TOTALLY true, but I definitely understood what she meant. We were with a girl who suffers from hearing loss, but whom they described as "a deaf mute". She clearly was not mute because she talked to us. It's so interesting to me how even this organization, which fights for the rights of minorities, doesn't completely operate the same way we do when it comes to political correctness.

M.L.D. sat me down in his office. He's a very nice guy and I really think he's doing something amazing with his work, but for some reason it felt a lot like waiting to be disciplined by a principal. "I want to tell you about the relationship between our two organizations."

Ok. Great.

He sat me down and explained for 20 minutes everything about the history of the two organizations and how they function. Awesome! Ten pages of my final project had just been spoken to me. I forgot my notebook in my apartment.

I retained it all though. I'm super fascinated by how much independence is given to the local organization and how much of it is managed by exterior groups.He gave me a couple of pamphlets which will help my research a ton and he said that in a little while I can accompany them out of Yaounde to attend a training for new counselors and see how that all works. I will probably get to attend the elections for their new executive secretary and such!

After that meeting Grace and I went to a grocery store in Bastos that had mostly European products. She thought that I would want to buy groceries there since I'm American, except groceries there were super expensive and things like ramen noodles and pringles. No thank you. I will not pay $8 for a container of pringles. So I requested we go to a place where I could buy fruit.

To market we go!
Grace and I took a taxi to a market fairly close to my apartment. We walked around and I got stared at a lot and a lady let me try a slice of orange because she was happy to see me. We bought oranges and papayas at the fruit stands. Alas, it is not yet mango season. I did, however, see avocados the size of my face! I may have to purchase one of those soon, although I'm not sure I could eat it all before it went bad. We then headed into a little shop and bought some popcorn from a popcorn machine. I was excited as this is one of my favorite snacks in the US, though was surprised to taste something sweet. Turns out they just pour sugar over their popcorn! I miss the delicious buttery salty kind, but this was good too.

We headed back to work (because people just leave work all the time there....that's another story.) and I folded some pamphlets with Audre until we decided to go visit Christian at work. He took us out to eat at a Cabaret, which is actually more like a karaoke bar here but with dancing as well. (Also the news station on loop playing Michelle Obama's rendition of the national anthem...) We ate Ndole, which is kind of a spinachy flavored dish and when someone says l'Ndole it sounds like "Land o' Lakes", and some more plantains. I'm beginning to realize that plantains in Cameroon are kind of like rice in Senegal. It's just going to keep happening, which is unfortunate since I'm not a huge fan of those. So far I'm not SUPER excited about the cuisine here, except for the produce, but Saturday I'm going to Audre's aunt's house to learn how to cook some Cameroonian food! Seriously it will be all day, she's picking me up at 7:30 AM.

So that's how today went more or less. I enjoy getting back to my apartment at a reasonable time so I can update all of you on everything before I forget!

With love from Cameroon,

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Soo....I'm in Cameroon...and I have friends?

Well, my internship is finally here! It's my second full day in Yaounde and work just finished (because work finishes at 3 pm here.) My first couple of days have been fun, interesting, exhausting, and stressful all at the same time.

Let's start at the beginning:

I arrived in Cameroon Sunday night around 6 pm after about 24 hours of travel. At that point, I had planned to meet the my big head boss guy's driver. Seriously, this guy is the BIG HEAD BOSS GUY. People don't even call him by his name or by Dr., they call him "Monsieur le Docteur". All the time. Even when he's not around. So..nobody was there. I had by chance e-mailed someone there to ask for a phone number, so I was able to borrow someone's phone (at the price of $3 American) to coordinate with her. She said "Oh, you're arriving today? I'm going to call my friend and then I'll come get you." I wait. and I WAIT. An hour standing outside the airport with my bags as men came up to me asking if I needed a ride or help or a taxi or if I wanted to exchange my money right then and there. (Bad idea by the way, if you do that, which I didn't. It's totally fake currency) So eventually I meet up with none other than M. Le Docteur lui-meme le roi de Yaounde, Centre, Cameroun (from now on known as "M.L.D."). He's a very nice guy, and was sorry for all of the confusion surrounding my arrival. So my apartment and the office are about a 30 minute drive from the airport but I made it! I arrived and I passed out immediately after being told by M.L.D. that I could sleep in and that my co-workers would help me out in the morning.

Day one:

Long story short, I did not sleep in. I woke up to all of the girls waiting around outside the office for the girl with the keys. (By the way, the office is literally right next door to my apartment. Like...they use my living room as part of the office. It's in the same building basically as a dorm-type setup. I have bunk beds with a mosquito net (hurray!) and a desk and from my window I can see a papaya tree and a neighborhood of houses that we would consider "dilapidated", except that they have satellite tv and nice cars. )

Anyway, I woke up confused and gross, but well-rested. I showered, which was not a totally terrifying experience, and went to work. Everyone introduced themselves to me and then stopped talking to that was kind of awkward. Eventually someone made coffee and they offered me a cup. Which I drank. Alone. On the couch. Though one would say that I'm pretty shy, I was baffled by this social situation. I had NO IDEA how to break through to these people. So I went with the strategy that my mom taught me when I started pre-school. I went up to some girls folding pamphlets and I said "Can I help?".

It kind of worked. It was still super awkward. They taught me how to fold pamphlets and then stopped talking again. Eventually I made conversation with a girl named Audre (like au-dray basically) and she offered to help me exchange my money and buy a cellphone. She also told me that her little brother, who studied law, was coming with us. Turns out the universal way for me to communicate with people is by discussing law. So we took a bunch of taxis and ended up downtown where I exchanged my money and bought a cellphone. I have to say that the way that both of these transactions occurred would not have been possible by myself because Cameroon has weird laws where you need to show your passport to buy a cellphone and create a bank account to exchange money. Christian, being a lawyer and a good business man, was able to work his way around these obstacles.

After buying the phone we ate "meal" at an outdoor restaurant under a canopy. I'm beginning to realize that Cameroonians eat one giant meal in the middle of the day (ours was around 4) and then snack whenever. This pleases me, as that's kind of how I eat. I had some plantains and potatoes and this huge bowl of yogurt with couscous. I appreciated the yogurt, not so much the couscous. I saw a kitty that looked like Leopold and "Payphone" came on the radio and I had a brief bought of homesickness, but it passed quickly.

After that, we said goodbye to Christian and Audre and I tried to take a taxi back to the apartment. We got in a taxi, except something didn't work out (I'm still not quite sure what it was) and he made us get out. So we walked. and we walked. and we WALKED. all the way back to the apartment, trying to catch a taxi along the way.

Catching taxis in Yaounde goes like this:
The going rate for taxis is 200 CFA, if you're going far you up it to 250 CFA so that the guy will accept your offer. You stand by the side of the road and you say something like this "250 CFA, two places, *neighborhood*" If they accept your offer, they'll point at you and stop the car. If not, you're SOL. The thing about this is, it's not like where you can miss a taxi in Chicago and just wait for the next one. If they don't like your offer, chances are the other guys won't either. Anyway, we ended up walking all the way back! Afterward I was so exhausted that I put on my pajamas, but just as I was getting ready for bed I heard a doorbell! Turns out I have one. It was Sophie, the lady who helped me find my internship, and her daughter. Sophie's sister had sent over some belongings for her via my luggage, so she came to pick them up! It was so nice to see a familiar face after an entire day of meeting new people.

Being white in Yaounde:'s interesting, that's for sure. For someone who doesn't get a lot of attention normally, walking in the road and having people shout "LA BLANCHE! LA BLANCHE!" (The white lady! The white lady!) is a little strange. People touch my arm to see if some of the whiteness will rub off. They tell me I'm a "bonne blanche" (good white person) whatever that means. It definitely feels different than being a toubab in Senegal, but that might be because there I was with a group of students. Here, I'm the only white person I've seen since I left the airport.

I realize that my post has gotten extraordinarily long. So much happened in my first few days here and I haven't had a chance to write about any of them in the blog. I guess the biggest thing to pull from this is that, today I folded more pamphlets, and I showed my co-workers pictures of my family on Facebook and one of the girls wants to marry my brother. So...that's all you really need to take from this.

The girls were nice and left the wifi on in the office so that I can use it to catch up with my family and friends! It's so nice of them. Hopefully this will continue and I can keep updating you all.

Love from Yaounde,