Friday, March 27, 2009

Searching for Tarzan

This past week 7 of my fellow Volunteers from the East headed into the rainforest to visit a married couple who volunteer with Peace Corps and World Wildlife Federation on the boarder of the CAR where there is a trio of national parks. This was a provincial project and almost all of the volunteers from the East participated with the exception of some of my friends in Batouri and Rachel because she was sick. The goal of the project was to give different informational seminars about health, business and English instruction to various groups that are very isolated or ‘en brousse’.

I left on Monday and took a Logging Truck to Yokoduma, this was pretty awesome because it was the first truck I’ve seen in Cameroon that wasn’t a private car that had a working gas gage and actually had windshield wiper fluid. We barreled through the forest and as we got closer I realized really how far out there we were going on our trip. I arrived in Yoko in pouring rain and walked through the town with my big bag looking for our hotel. I got there and waited for the rest of the East to arrive. As a group of the east boys arrived we decided to check on transport for the next day and then have dinner. We sat down at the bar and had a few beers and chatted. It was great to listen to the silly boy talk and to laugh really hard. We were then joined by a South African man in his mid forties who was wearing the shortest shorts in the world. Evidently, people had seen him in Bertoua and he was thrown out of a club because his shorts were so short. He ended up talking to the boys for a while and telling them that if they wanted to ride horses on his farm in the south they could, he was a very weird character and spoke no French. He was in Cameroon to find gold and diamonds.

We stayed in Yoko for a night in a moderately nice hotel room that seemed pretty spectacular to me. Yoko is a really weird city because it’s the main post for the logging activity coming from the Congo and from South East Cameroon so it attracts all types. It also has been compared to the Old West because of this speculating aspect. A lot of people are looking for gold and diamonds and come through the town. It was interested to feel like you were in the Old west, but with huge logging trucks coming through instead of trains, and young boys harassing you on motos and not horses.

In the morning we set out to Mambele in a WWF truck. This drive is about 5 hours and we were told that it could get pretty bumpy and some people get sick. Thinking that this hasn’t been a problem for me before I volunteer, (seeing as how I did it on family vacations) I decided to sit in the back trunk area that has two benches facing each other so that you are riding sideways. We squeeze into this area with four people and another six in the other seats of the car and we were on our way. We drove faster than I have driven in Cameroon and did not respect the various bumps in the road and quickly I started feeling very bad, (I’m assuming the beers the night before were also not the best idea) and my friend Joe had decided to by soya or street meat that they grill up sorta like Bangle Barbeque but a lot more sketchy meat. Anyway, he gets a huge bag ‘to share’ of this meat, but it’s about 9 in the morning and no one wants meat so he ends up eating most of this fatty stuff alone. Well after about an hour bouncing in the back of the car he starts to look pretty sweaty and white. So we open all the windows and attempt to do mind over matter. I will not lie the closer we got to the deep forest the more I thought I was going to puke. At one point my buddy Nik was talking about silly things he did when he was little and I was laughing so hard and feeling so sick and almost did throw up on him, but I held it together. Finally we arrived in Mambele which ended up being about two boutiques, an elementary school, and a road. The WWF is trying to get more tourism in the area, but it’s near impossible to do so because first you have to get out there and then after you have to stay in the middle of nowhere. Either way they had this campsite set up for us and it was pretty cool. The campsite had a center pagoda thing where there were couches and a table and then it had three houses with a little twin bed in each and three tents with two twin beds in each. I was feeling adventurous so I took a tent with my friend Ann-Marie, who is insanely awesome and is going home in June and it makes me incredibly sad.

So we go and make dinner at Sara’s (one of the volunteers who lives there) house and we open the back door and there in the trees are monkeys. They are calling out to each other and they are swinging from tree to tree in death defying jumps and it’s a gorgeous sunset. You can walk about five minutes down a path in their back yard where you can see a gorgeous waterfall. She told us a story that they say a huge snake in the waterfall not long ago and that you could actually see the snake eating fish! This was slightly terrifying and everyone kept reassuring us that there weren’t any snakes where we were (which is total crap) but we didn’t see any so that’s good. We ate dinner and then went back to the camp and had a little boxed wine for a night cap. At this point I was so tired I was practically falling asleep standing up so I went back to the tent first. I’ll tell you, as my father’s daughter I’ve never been too keen on the whole camping lifestyle, and this trip really didn’t change my mind. I went to the camp and proceeded to be terrified because some creature kept rubbing against the tent right by my head and scaring the crap out of me! It was making horrific noises and when Ann-Marie finally came back I was insanely tense but I was so tired I finally fell asleep so I guess you can will yourself to do anything.

The next couple of days were the business people’s days to do their seminaries with the local groups while we planned our seminars. On Thursday I went to the elementary schools with some teachers and taught the kids for about an hour. We played Red light Green light and a dancing game and sang songs and then Reid talked about health education. It was a great way to give an example of how we conduct class and to show that, even though the student’s level in English is very low, they can still be engaged in the lessons because of the student centered activities.

On Friday the education people finally gave their seminar. We started with a discussion of the problems the teacher’s faced in this incredibly remote and poor section of the East. Problems included: poverty, lack of materials, teachers not being given instruction on how to teach English, the students not having books, absenteeism, lack of motivation, parents not being involved, and lack of support. We were expecting these problems but I was not expecting the teachers to be so motivated and enthusiastic about our program. They wanted information and had extreme patience with our faltering French in order to get as much as possible from our presentations. They asked intelligent questions and had interesting discussions and were very excited about what we were presenting. It really made me feel that our project was not only well planned and timed but necessary for these brave teachers who accept positions in such a crazy remote area.

For my section I presented a pamphlet of activities that can be used to help students learn English. I gave examples of songs, games, and grammar activities that will motivate the students and get them excited about English. My French was pretty iffy at times but I could tell the teachers were with me and they supplied me with pronunciation or words I didn’t know so that they would all understand. They also responded to my enthusiasm and my willingness to act like an idiot for the sake of learning. I told them that we are all actors in front or an audience and our main goal is to keep them entertained and excited about learning. If this means that I must put aside my ‘dignity’ is the word I used, than in the classroom I am going to be a more affective teacher. It is all about not being embarrassed but being effective. After my presentation the teachers actually clapped and some came up to me and asked me how to sing certain songs and things. It’s interesting to field questions about how to sing Old Obama (my alternative to Old McDonald) but it was great to see their enthusiasm.

We continued to present information about how to teach lessons that will teach English as well as community skills by encouraging teachers to include health lessons, alcohol abuse, tribalism, women’s rights, and other things that are problems in the community. Two volunteers presented on prevention of diarrhea and sanitation of the water and though the teachers knew the basics, we showed them the economic gain of these practices and how to enforce these lessons in the classroom. The best part of this was to talk about how to teach HIV to smaller children. One man said that he doesn’t like to use bananas because it wasn’t enough like a penis. We all had no idea where he was going so we thought maybe he though a plantain (a larger banana) might work? I think the seminar was successful and everyone seemed to enjoy it so it was worth going down there.

On Saturday we went into the wildlife park where we would camp one night. We drove about 10 km into the park through a very overgrown dirt road. I felt like Indiana Jones tearing through the brush and bouncing around like no one’s business. At times one side of the truck felt almost vertical and the people opposite us tried to make little oreo cookies with our bags between us. It was a bit of a smush! We were even told to slide our windows closed because snakes could come in. We had 12 people total so when we got to the drop off point we split into two groups. Our group had five Americans one porter (literally a pigme guy carrying our heaviest bag who was about 5’ tall and was wearing flip flops into the jungle). We were lead by the ‘ecological protection officer”who wasn’t much of a guide. He walked at a clipped pace with galosh boots on a full army uniform with a baseball cap and he had a one shot riffle slung over his shoulder (it was held together by a rubber band). In one hand he held a single canister with one bullet. I hoped we only saw one scary animal or poacher because if not we were screwed. The forest was terribly impressive with crazy trees competing for sunlight and all kinds of plants and birds. We often had to jump over fallen trees and it was almost impossible to straddle some. We saw some trees whose trunks were as big as a house. We got through our 5k hike and we really didn’t see any animals but it was still pretty impressive. We arrived at the ‘tree house’ which looked like a prison watch tower in the middle of a large clearing in the forest. We tried to be a silent as possible because our group was so big and I guess the animals could sense our presence.

The tree house was two rooms and you could go inside and open the windows and look through the screen to try and see animals but they couldn’t see you. We waited around most of the afternoon with binoculars and bated breath. We did see a lot of different kinds of monkeys going from tree to tree and we saw a type of African deer come out and sort of prance around. Other than that it was just a long afternoon of squinting and being hot. We then decided to take a small group back to a camp site and cook dinner. The camp site was a bit away from the tree house so we walked for a while, finally happy that we didn’t have to stay so quiet. As we walked we suddenly heard a crazy Growl noise that made us all stop in our tracks and stare at our guide. He gave the sign to run to him so we did and my friend Sioban starts saying, “Gorillas don’t eat human’s right? They just attack us!” It was hilarious and we just continued walking. I guess it was just a warning growl or something because we never did see them. We ended up sleeping in the tree house and watching the sunrise around 5am still looking for animals but we didn’t really see anything.

The next morning my group switched with the other group and got the guide Petit Jean. Also a Pygmie, Jean knew all about living in the forest and spotting animals. He walked in front with his machete expertly chopping stray branches and keeping his eyes peeled. He showed us the bark of one tree that is called the onion of the forest and it smelled just like onion and the smell sorta followed us. He also showed us a vine you can cut and it will pour running water for about 5 minutes and it tasted really sweet. He showed us a tree whose bark you could use for soap. I was very impressed and we all talked about how the Baka (or pigmies) could probably live for a long time with out being effected by the world. Petit Jean continued leading us and at one point I looked down and saw he was wearing Gellies- literal sandal type shoes that were made of a gel plastic, and this was what he was traipsing through the forest in. We did end up seeing some monkeys up close as they jumped from tree to tree above us! It was pretty impressive and very Africa!

Sunday was our last day and we drove out of the forest to Yokoduma in the heavy rain. Thank goodness we had a good car because we passed tons of smaller cars that were stuck in the mud and at one point we had to change a tire and go around a huge truck that was stalled in the road. We did some intense off-roading but ended up getting there in one piece, if not a bit dirty in the process. I went back to Ndelele the next day (after we bought our driver a beer for getting us to Yoko safe!) and on the way to Lele our car was stopped because a huge tree fell down because of the wind. We all thought we weren’t going to be able to get through but the ingenious Africans made a whole new road through the lawn of one of the residents who lived along the road. In about 30 minutes they cut up the tree and shoveled dirt so all the cars could go around. It was pretty impressive.

All in the entire trip was a success and I will not forget it anytime soon. It made me feel adventurous and like I came to Africa for a reason. I love you all and miss you tons


Monday, March 2, 2009

Review of the Weekend

I have been thinking about what people’s reaction would be like if they came here and saw me, so I thought I would write this blog about how I’ve become accustomed to living here and certain things don’t phase me anymore.
So last weekend I had to travel because I needed to buy shirts for my girls group and I had to make copies of my Sequence 4 exam so that my students could actually have a decent test- taking experience. Traveling during the dry season is actually pretty terrible. I still can’t decide which is worse. If you travel during the rainy season you end up getting all wet because of the leaky cars and it often takes an hour or two longer to get anywhere because you have to keep getting off the car and walking while they try and push it through ditches filled with water. Then there’s the dry season where everything is covered with a thick redish brown dust that goes everywhere. Everyone is wearing Hospital type mouth coverings and some are wearing protective goggles like wood cutters use. Everyone also has long pants and jackets on in order to protect their clothes from the dust. I like to sit by the window (if there is actually plastic and the car has windows) because it can become so stifiling hot in there that I need the breeze even if it does kick up tons of dust. So after about two minutes I’m covered with dust and can see all of the little hairs on my arms perfectly because of how the dirt covers them. Sometimes you are lucky enough to sweat tons and then the dust becomes mud right on you. Everyone is in a foul mood because of the heat and when you finally get to your destination all you can think about is a shower. The dust is more prominent on us white people because we change such fabulous colors. The other crappy thing about traveling during the dry season is that my allergies become crazy and after I get home I feel horrible like I have a cold and I can’t breath because all of the dust I’ve inhaled. But the things is, I’ve only really thought about complaining about this now, because it’s the way thigns are here.
The best part about traveling is what I must look like when I’m on the bus. Friday I wore a red shirt that I bought at Target in the states. That was when my mom and I thought I had to buy huge clothes so the villagers wouldn’t make fun of me for being ‘sexy’. Well this shirt is at least two sizes too big and because of all the hand washing, actually goes down to about mid thigh just above the knee. I couple this with a peasant skirt my mom sent me that is a good design for Africa but has the colors of vomit, I love you mom but that skirt is real ugly, though it works well with the dirt. I think people believe there is a certain way you should look like a peace corps volunteer and sometimes I look exactly like that- like I don’t give a crap and I’m living in Africa. I then have my hair tucked into a grey conductor’s type hat and I’m wearing hideous 2 dollar fake ray band sunglasses that I bought here. Anyway, imagine that this is what people here think that Americans look like on a normal basis. Either way I looked at myself in the mirror when I arrived and I started laughing so hard it hurt, wow I guess you can get used to everything.
This weekend was good though, even if I did travel for two days and have one day at my destination. We made quiche and peaut butter cookies and it was awesome. I also bought good cheese and made an awesome cheese and bean sandwich. We also made a fire and roasted S’mores with peeps someone got for Christmas. It was really great sitting around the fire and just talking and having a good time. But my most favorite memory from this weekend was when all us girls, with a beer under our belts. Thought it would be awesome to have a Sound of Music Sing a long. We turned on my dvd and did the sing-a-long version and I swear my heart got all warm and gooey I was so happy!
Anyway, now I’m home and gearing up for the 8 Mars, which is Woman’s day. On Saturday is the Soiree Cultural where my girl’s group will do a dance and also show a game that talks about AIDS. We will be marching and wearing our women’s day pagne which I just commissioned my tailor to make me a new skirt and shirt. I also bought shirts for my girls club for Sunday but it turns out that the shop burned down the day after I put down money for them to print them for me. What kind of luck do I have. Either way I feel pretty silly and I hope thye’ll be able to get them to me before the weekend but who knows!
Anyway, I hope you are all well and I think of you all the time! How did it get to be March so quickly? Love you all!