Monday, June 15, 2009

First in-country post

It has officially been a week since I began this journey or maybe a month, depending on how you look at it. Having left Brussels, then Madrid, then Champaign, it all leads to Philadelphia on the 4th of June 2009. It is now the evening of the 11th of June and I am lying in bed in a room generously rented out to me by my host family.

Where to begin? Flying into Yaoundé with the Cameroonian national football team? Dining with the U.S. ambassadress? Actually making it to my training site and start living with my host family? Perhaps the beginning may be more appropriate for narrative’s sake. I arrived in Philly at 12:30pm on the 4th and made it to the Holiday inn in the historic district of said town by taxi. I entered the hotel and saw some of the volunteers who I would soon get to know. I could not check my bags in so I headed into town for a bite to eat. By the time I got back we started the meetings and filled out acceptations, life insurances and a whole load of other things that as it turns out in the grand scheme of the Peace Corps things is rather trivial (except life insurance perhaps). More sessions on values and meaning of the Peace Corps, scary stories regarding safety and health and introductions were done. By the time we were allowed to leave it was evening and the volunteers ran out into the city for Philly cheese steak sandwiches among other things. We got to know each other, somewhat giddy with anticipation, had some drinks, some talks, some bits of everything, and crashed.

The next morning was the departure for Cameroon via JFK flight to Brussels with the final destination being Yaoundé. Vaccinations were done for yellow fever and we started taking our weekly malaria prophylaxis pills. These do not ensure immunity from the parasite but should help notwithstanding. The beginning of vivid dreams! Afterwards we boarded a coach for JFK and spent an hour getting through Brooklyn. The flight to Brussels was not anything to write about, and therefore will remain so. Arriving in Brux I went straight to the bar and had a couple leffes, despite it being 8am. Spoke to the European family who wished me all the best and a safe journey, and headed for Yaoundé. We boarded with the Cameroonian national football team and everyone fell asleep at take off. I saw the Alps, a glance of Italy, the Mediterranean and Tunisia until I promptly fell asleep over the Sahara and woke up in the extreme north province of Cameroon. I saw the scrublands turn to mountains turn to forests and lakes. Yaoundé was a luscious green that I could not really fathom until then. The airport was a maelstrom of paparazzi and Peace Corps administrators who stand in for shepherds. Our customs were taken care of as were our bags. We piled into a couple of busses and headed towards the centre of the city passing by boutiques, vegetable gardens, corrugated iron and trees, an airfield and the local brewery. After arriving in the hotel, we unpacked, had dinner and had a couple of beers dreaming of what could lie in store for us the next day.

Not much in the end, or even afterwards. We stayed in that hotel for our security. They let us out into the neighbourhood for a couple of hours, but I took the opportunity to play Uno and other card games so as to get to know the other volunteers better. On Sunday we went to the Country Director’s house for dinner, even if it meant missing the last 10 minutes of the Cameroon – Morocco qualifying match which the former had to win to have good chances of making it to South Africa. It was a tie. We all met the U.S. ambassador to Yaoundé who certainly had some stories to tell. I will not tell them here, her résumé is online. The following week we would get up at around 6:30 to go to training for 7:15 which would start at 8:30 oftentimes. These were pep talks on health and security, cross-cultural classes and training for our job with the Corps. Got to know the Peace Corps house and use their internet (apparently the fastest in Cameroon found so far by other volunteers). More dinners at the hotel to get to know each other, picked up medical kits and water filters and French tests to get to know our level. I am at least high enough that I can start learning Pidgin English and Fufulde immediately it seems. Nonetheless the feeling of entrapment was constant because aside from one trip to get our residences all we were able to see were the Peace Corps office and the hotel.

So in the morning we left for the training site to live with our host families for the next 9 to 11 weeks. Correction: the afternoon. PC tries to stay attuned to US times, but lapses frequently to Cameroonian, though I am no one to complain about this particular point. We left around 1:30pm and got into town in the lqte afternoon, having gone through tropical forests, a hundreds of metres wide river and grassland. I saw a beheaded snake being sold at the side of the road, along with other delicacies... the trip was interesting. I met my host father with 2 of his children who took me to their home where I also met the eldest daughter and their mother. It’s a rather large house. I am given one bedroom outfitted with a bed, mosquito net, trunk, desk and chair, kerosene lamp, candles and water. There is a kitchen and living room, 3 other bedrooms and a bathroom (toilet, no latrine!) as well as a patio. I am close by to a couple of volunteers and the SED house, and everyone is in basic walking distance. I also met another volunteer hosted by my family who gave me a great impression of this family. At the same time the mother and the eldest daughter came in. They are a beautiful family who have made me feel more at home in these past 5 hours than the PC has in the past week. I unpacked and helped out with dinner. This consisted of fried plantains, avocado salad with vinaigrette, hedgehog in spicy sauce and fish with potatoes and green beans in another spicy sauce and a dessert of the sweetest pineapple I have ever tasted. Both parents, who are teachers at the local school talked with me about all sorts of things.

I went outside after this candlelit dinner (because electricity had gone out) and looked at the sky. The only artificial light came from a lone car in the distance and other amber windows with their own dinner scenes unfolding leisurely and unhurriedly. I turned my head up and I saw a cacophony of stars. The night sky was oozing with them. I heard a chuckle from inside my home and chuckled myself. I am going to make the best of this experience and this family.

I Promise.

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