Yosemite

 

The Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View

 

Is just gorgeous. 

   

  

 

But a word of advice: make sure you have plenty of gas, just in case there’s a rock slide on your planned route out of the park. Otherwise you may find yourself cruising down a mountain in neutral and hoping you make it to the gas station in Wawona before your engine shuts down. 

 

The sun setting over Yosemite National Park

  

Borrego

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A lone ram looking over Palm Canyon.

“Borrego” is the Spanish word for the bighorn sheep which also happen to be the stars of California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

And on my several hikes with fifth graders this last February and March, we got lucky enough to see the sheep – including their lambs – several times.

A herd of penninsular big horn sheep quenching their thirst.

A herd of peninsular bighorn sheep quenching their thirst.

But this spring in the desert was also great for wildflowers.

wildflowermosaic

Ethiopia

The main room of a traditional Harari house.

The main room of a traditional Harari house.

 

This post has been a long time in coming.

 

In part this is just because as soon as I got back to the U.S. I just kind of got swept up in readjusting to life back here – buying a car, seeing people, eating food, and looking for a job. Soon the entire African continent seemed so removed from me, both in terms of distance and time. Cameroon feels so long ago, and my trip to East Africa does too.

 

But if I’m completely honest, part of my reluctance to write this post has also stemmed from my inability to decide exactly what I want to say about my trip to Ethiopia.

 

My first meal (besides breakfast) in Addis Ababa.

My first meal (besides breakfast) in Addis Ababa.

 

Buna macchiato

Tasty buna macchiato – coffee with milk.

A large part of why I decided to visit Ethiopia was the food. I’d been enamored of Ethiopian food ever since my first taste back in Switzerland. I mean, what’s not to like about having several tasty vegetarian stews all on one plate for you to scoop up with nothing but your hand and some spongy, sour injera? And on that count, Ethiopia did not disappoint. I ate Ethiopian food at least once each day, every day for two weeks and did not get tired of it. Add in delicious, strong Ethiopian coffee, often for as little as 25-50 cents per cup, and I spent my sojourn in the country constantly buzzed and satisfied.

 

And then there was Ethiopia itself. I’d heard about trips that other Peace Corps Volunteers had taken: Kevin had had a long layover on the way to Kenya and come back talking about what a great city Addis Ababa was, and Laura had gone for a week and come back with fascinating stories about her time in Harar. A quick Google search also showed sights like the rock-hewn churches in Lalibela.

Bete Abba Libanos in Lalibela.

Bete Abba Libanos in Lalibela.

 

An Orthodox priest.

An Orthodox priest.

So I did go to Ethiopia, in particular, Addis Ababa, Lalibela, and Harar. It turns out that if you have an international flight in or out of Ethiopia on Ethiopian Air and you are willing to wait and book your domestic flights in person at one of their offices, the tickets cost less than half as much as they do online.

 

Lalibela is one of the holiest cities in Ethiopia according to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It is the site of 11 churches cut out ofsolid rock during the reign of the Zagwe emperor Lalibela (at the time the town was known as Roha, instead). They were meant to be a replica of Jerusalem in Ethiopia after the real Jerusalem was captured by Muslims in 1187 – there is even a River Jordan in Lalibela, also carved from rock. Seeing all those monolithic carved churches and the pilgrims swaddled in white cotton is an interesting reminder of Christianity’s older roots.

A pilgrim outside of Bete Giyorgis.

A pilgrim outside of Bete Giyorgis.

 

I was in Lalibela during the Ethiopian Orthodox holiday of Meskel (usually September 27th on the Gregorian calendar), which commemorates the finding of the true cross – that is, the one on which Jesus was crucified. This meant that not only were there a lot of pilgrims from surrounding villages in town, but a big celebration on the eve of the holiday with a big bonfire that morning.

The aftermath of the main bonfire.

The aftermath of the main bonfire.

 

Harar, on the other hand, is the most significant Muslim city in the country, and apparently considered by some to be the 4th holiest city in Islam. It’s a walled city on a hilltop with over 80 mosques within the walls of Harar’s old town. In Harar I saw sights like a man hand-feeding wild hyenas and another sheep being sacrificed for Tabaski (see also: Le Fête de Mouton), though I completely failed at finding the main celebration for the holiday.

 

The Harar hyena man.

The Harar hyena man.

 

I have to admit, though, that despite all that I saw in Lalibela and Harar, Addis Ababa was my favorite of the places that I visited in Ethiopia. Addis doesn’t have the magnificent monolithic churches of Lalibela, nor does it have the narrow winding alleys of Harar’s walled city, and the price of its taxis gave me a renewed appreciation of Yaoundé’s taxi system. But having just spent those two years in Cameroon, I could definitely appreciate Addis Ababa’s amenities. The inexpensive day spas, the froyo place complete with free wifi, the food, and oh my goodness, the food, both Ethiopian and otherwise. It’s an African metropolis that is modernizing very quickly.

 

But the other thing that really set Addis Ababa apart from both Lalibela and Harar was my experience just walking down the street.

 

You see, a white woman in a country like Cameroon or Ethiopia is bound to stand out a bit. And how people respond when they see a white woman varies from person to person and place to place. In Cameroon, the East, West, Center, and South regions were ones where non-black Peace Corps Volunteers in particular expect more harassment than in the Grand North or anglophone regions.

 

In Addis Ababa, I was actually surprised by how little harassment I experienced. In Lalibela and Harar, however, harassment was an almost constant part of the experience. To be fair, the vast majority of people yelling at me seemed to be going in the direction of wanting to be my guide, and as far as stereotyping based on appearance goes, “rich tourist” is pretty positive and certainly not completely untrue. But when people are yelling at you constantly, and you don’t know which ones are going to go from “you need guide?” one second, to an offer to “help” me by marrying me, or occasionally much worse, the next second, it gets exhausting very quickly. The Peace Corps Volunteers I met in Addis told me that sometimes the harassment even goes as far as people throwing rocks, but fortunately this wasn’t something I encountered.

 

I am glad that I went to Ethiopia, but I’ll also admit that by the time I was boarding a plane to leave the country, I was very ready to be going home.

 

Ethiopian coffee

All set to brew some Ethiopian coffee.

 

Safari

A zebra in the Ngorongoro Crater.

Safari is the Swahili word for a trip or journey. In English, I believe it means getting driven around a national park or game reserve in Africa and taking a lot of pictures.

I arrived in Arusha, Tanzania, about two weeks ago with one main goal in mind: to book myself a budget safari and take in some of the parks of northern Tanzania. Luckily for me, the safari industry is really well established in Arusha – to the point where as soon as you get there everyone you meet starts asking you: have you been on a safari, yet? are you going on a safari? have you booked your safari? So it was just a matter of calling up a company that the guy at the front desk of my hotel said had come by looking for people to join a group, and I little while later I had chosen a package and was at an ATM withdrawing a million shillings (which, to be fair, is only about $600 – it’s much easier to become a Tsh millionaire than a CFA millionaire).

My safari was a three day trip (two nights) to see the Ngorongoro Crater, Tarangire National Park, and Lake Manyara National Park, which are all within a few hours of Arusha.

The Ngorongoro Crater was perhaps most notable for the stunning landscape it presented. We probably saw more wildlife in both of the other parks that we visited, but each one offered up a slightly different variety of animals and often very different scenery.

The view from the edge of the Ngonongoro Crater.

A safari vehicle drives by some hippos in the Ngorongoro Crater.

An ostrich strolling across the crater floor.

In Tarangire National Park, one of the highlights of the day ended up being watching a lion stalk and ultimately kill a wildebeest. It was kind of far from our vehicle (and unlike everyone else with their telescoping lenses, I just had my iphone), and the actual chase happened really quickly, so I didn’t really bother with pictures.

Impalas in the road in Tarangire.

A family of elephants huddling in the shade.

Mama and baby monkey at our lunch site.

The lion coming back to her kill.

Lake Manyara was mostly about seeing different types of birds. The park also featured lots of trees, though, and therefore plenty of giraffes.

Giraffes in Lake Manyara National Park.

A couple of elephants walking by.

Lake Manyara itself.

Guinea fowl by the side of the road.

And baboons. Our guide rolled his eyes at me when everyone else in the vehicle wanted to stop and take pictures of these.

If that’s not enough pictures, there are even more at my Flickr photostream.

Stone Town, Zanzibar

Along the coast at Stone Town.

Along the coast at Stone Town.

The Catholic cathedral, peaking out from above a Stone Town alleyway.

The Catholic cathedral, peaking out from above a Stone Town alleyway.

Stone Town is a small city by the sea, a maze of winding alleyways full of architecture hundreds of years old that you can get lost in – until you invariably find the edge and are dumped out at the coast or along the edge of the new town.

My few days in Zanzibar were mostly occupied by a lot of just this type of wandering, all the while ducking in and out of curio shops (Stone Town is heaven for the souvenir fiend) or taking in a historical monument or two.

The House of Wonders, or the tallest building in Stone Town and the first to have electricity.

The House of Wonders, or the tallest building in Stone Town and the first to have electricity.

The Old Arab Fort, Stone Town's oldest building.

The Old Arab Fort, Stone Town’s oldest building.

The Slave Memorial at the Anglican Church, which was built on the site of Zanzibar's slave market.

The Slave Memorial at the Anglican Church, which was built on the site of Zanzibar’s slave market.

One place I kept coming back to (besides Lukmaan Restaurant, where I ate delicious Zanzibari food three times in five days) was the Forodhani Gardens – mostly because there was free public wifi!

Aside from being a well-maintained public park overlooking the ocean, every evening, the Forodhani Gardens also transform into something of a food court, with offerings such as skewered and grilled seafood, fresh squeezed sugar cane juice, Zanzibar pizza (more like an omelet inside of a crepe than a normal pizza), and something called urojo or Zanzibar mix.

Urojo: a tasty broth with all sorts of things floating in it, from grilled meats, to a boiled egg, to some sort of fried thing that tasted like white bean beignets (which I'm told taste like chicken nuggets).

Urojo: a tasty broth with all sorts of things floating in it, from grilled meats, to a boiled egg, to some sort of fried thing that tasted like white bean beignets (which I’m told taste like chicken nuggets).

Frying up a Zanzibar pizza.

Frying up a Zanzibar pizza.

The Forodhani Gardens are kind of geared toward tourists, which unfortunately meant a bit more harassment than in other parts of Stone Town, but it was still overall a very positive part of the trip.

A view of the harbor from the Forodhani Gardens.

A view of the harbor from the Forodhani Gardens.

Nungwi, Zanzibar

Low tide.

I went to Nungwi for the beach.

I’m actually not that much of a beach person. I do like the beach and the ocean – but more for looking at than anything else. I think that part of the problem is that having grown up in Southern California, sand and salt water don’t seem terribly novel, and I still always expect the water to be cold.

I know, boo-hoo, too much of a good thing.

But anyway, I went to Nungwi for the beach, and Nungwi certainly delivered.

Nungwi is the biggest tourist destination on Zanzibar Island other than Stone Town, primarily for the beach, and it showed: long stretches of the shoreline were dominated by resorts, restaurants, and the tourists patronizing them.

Nungwi resorts.

Nungwi resorts.

Slightly inland from that, though, is Nungwi “village” (really a small town). So, not being that much of a beach person, I also took a village tour while I was there. This included, among other things, seeing how the traditional dhow fishing boats are built, going by the fish market, and watching a woman make coconut fiber rope using no tools aside from her own leg – I kid you not!

Fishermen in a traditional dhow fishing boat.

An old Zanzibari house.

Making coconut fiber rope.

As for the rest of those two days – I spent almost all of it on the beach.

Sunset in Nungwi.

Sunset in Nungwi.

On to the next Adventure

After two weeks milling about in Yaoundé, as well as a good deal of paperwork and a few medical appointments (I have no cavities, stomach parasites, or tuberculosis) it’s official: I am no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer.

 

The three of us who were having our Close of Service in the same week were all pretty ambivalent about the idea of a whole big ceremony, but after a couple days of equivocating, the matter ended up being decided for us. The new Ambassador was visiting the building on Thursday, and the trainers were preparing for the new trainees that would be arriving the next week, so there was neither the time nor the space. We did away with the whole to-do with the speeches and banging on a gong, and instead just received our pins and certificates, took a few pictures, and started calling ourselves Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. And that was that.

 

To celebrate, my friend Kevin and I splurged and split the cost of two nights at the Yaoundé Hilton, where we laid out by the pool, took advantage of the Jacuzzi, went out for nice meals, and generally lived it up like the grands we aren’t.

 

Then, Sunday morning, I was on a bus at 6:30 am, on my way to Douala, where I got on a plane to Addis Ababa, and then another one to Zanzibar.

 

And on Monday morning, I found myself in paradise.

 

Nungwi, Zanzibar

Poli, North

A view of the Grand Mosque and town center from Town Hall.

Poli is a town with a population between 8,500 and 9,000 in the Faro Division, in the North Region of Cameroon. It was also my home for almost two years.

The Town Hall itself. This new building was constructed during my time in Poli.

The entrance to the Lamido’s compound. A Lamido is a Muslim traditional leader (and in Poli’s case, also the Mayor).

The daily market.

The Youth Center.

This is how people in Poli get water.

And a neighbor’s house (typical for the North).

Calling It

On Wednesay, July 30th, I was sitting the Salon de Thé restaurant in Garoua waiting for lunch to be served with three other Volunteers when my phone rang. Our DPT’s name appeared on the screen, and I knew that that was it – that was “the call.” The Embassy has their security meetings on Wednesday mornings, and this time they had made the decision.

The previous Sunday, July 27th, there had been a high-profile attack by Boko Haram in the Far North village of Kolofata. In addition to killing at least 14 people, they succeeded in kidnapping the wife of Cameroon’s Vice Prime Minister, who was back in his hometown to celebrate the end of Ramadan, as well as the local Lamido, the traditional Muslim religious leader.

So we passed the phone around and all heard the news: the North Region would be closed, and we would have until the 11th to pack up our houses, say our goodbyes, and leave our posts. Then, after a few days consolidated in Garoua, the North Volunteers would load their things onto a bus and say a final goodbye to the region.

Fortunately for me, I had been mentally preparing myself to leave soon, anyway, and this was only moving things up by about two weeks, but I still found the actual process to be an emotional one. The day after getting the news I found myself awake in bed at 3 a.m. thinking about the things I would need to start doing once I got back to post that day.

Most of the people I care most about at post have been out of town for the summer. Arielle, my favorite teenage neighbor, has been down in the South with her family during the school break, so I’ve just been talking to her over the phone. And when we never heard about funding for a summer program from the mayor’s office, Théo decided to take a break and spend the summer in Garoua until the academic year started up again, so I only saw him one day out of my last week at post.

Delicious gumbo with rice couscous.

I mostly ended up spending time with Barthelemey, my domestique, who made my life so much easier during that last week. He helped me find buyers for the things I was trying to sell, he helped clean out my house, he brought me food on my last full day at post so I wouldn’t have to worry about cooking, and he even came with me part of the way to Garoua to help out. I’m not one for drawn out and emotional goodbyes (in general I’d rather just avoid that part of things), and I avoided tears, but he was definitely the hardest person to say goodbye to, knowing that I will probably never see him again. I gave him a decent final bonus, too, but I also worry about him knowing that we will no longer reliably be paid every month.

Then there was one other thing that made leaving a bit more difficult on a non-emotional level: when I went back to post to pack up my life, I was already on a moto from the main road to my post when the driver casually mentioned that the bridge had fallen. What? I asked. What are we going to do? We are going to traverse it, he said. And when we got there, traverse it we did. The bridge was in fact completely down, and the river completely impassable by car, so instead I waded through knee-high water, while moto driver put my backpack on his back… and carefully drove through the river.

What used to be a bridge.

For moving day I ended up having to schedule two cars to carry my stuff – one to get me and my things from my post to the bridge, and another to meet me on the other side and bring me the rest of the way to Garoua. I had been anticipating having to pay men hanging out by the bridge to carry all of my luggage across the water, but then Barthelemey insisted on coming with me and doing it himself. Fortunately it hadn’t rained very hard in several days, so the water only came to mid-calf.

Waiting for the sun to rise on the last morning at post.

And then it was goodbye, not just to Barthelemey but to the place that had been my home for almost two years.

Dialoguing between the Genders in Cameroon’s North

The evening before the North region Men as Partners Conference was to start, my counterpart Théo approached me. Theo is the Chef de Centre at the Youth Center in my town, and the purpose of this conference was to bring together Cameroonian men and women from around Cameroon’s Grand North, along with American Volunteers, to discuss issues related to gender, health, and development.

Théo told me that he was glad that the Peace Corps was putting on a conference that concerned men, since so often things like this only include women.

Now usually my instinct is to bristle at men trying to say that we shouldn’t be highlighting the plight of women in particular. To that man at that round table last year who asked, why is it the Ministry for the Promotion of the Woman and the Family? Isn’t the woman already part of the family? What about men? To him I say that maybe men don’t need to be promoted so much, since men aren’t constantly marginalized because of their gender. After all, it’s women who, all over Cameroon, are sometimes not allowed to leave the family compound, even to go to the health center, without special permission from their husband. All over Cameroon, and especially in the Grand North, girls who do go to school are dropping out early because of early pregnancy or marriage, or because their families prioritize paying their brothers’ school fees over theirs – to the point were at all of the three high schools in my town there are at least twice as many boys enrolled as girls. All over Cameroon, if a woman even bothers to try to report a rape, she is overwhelmingly more likely to be laughed at or be blamed herself than given any sort of help.

But the fact remains that it doesn’t actually make sense to take on such a large issue as how gender is viewed in a society while ignoring half the population. That’s what the Men as Partners Conference was about: involving men in talking about and transforming gender roles. I think that Théo did get that, if not at the beginning of the conference, then certainly by the end.

And it was definitely an interesting three days.

The first day was dedicated mainly to discussing what gender is, acknowledging perceptions of how men and women should behave in society, and sharing how we experience gender. One of the most interesting sessions of the whole conference for me was the “Gender Fishbowl.” This involved first the Cameroonian women sitting in a circle in the middle of the group discussing what it is like to be a woman in Cameroonian society and what they wished men understood, while the men sat on the edges and listened. Then everyone switched places so that it was the men in the center talking about what it is like being a man while the women listened. The women talked about challenges like not being part of the decision making process in their families and the amount of work they are expected to do. Women in Cameroon are expected to care for the children, do all the household work, whether or not they have a “real” job as well, and if their family farms (as most families do), then they do that, too. When it was the men’s turn, some of them started off by complaining that women talk and nag too much. The moderator for this whole conference, Sylvie, who is Peace Corps Cameroon’s Community Health Program Manager, was doing a really good job keeping the discussion going during this session, and at this she spoke up with something like “Don’t lie, guys, tell us what is really the most difficult thing about being a man in Cameroon.” Soon we started hearing about things like the weight of responsibility that men often feel, especially if they are the head and sole decision maker for a family.

Another session the same day was called “Be a Man.” This entailed Cameroonian men making a list of what was meant when someone said “be a man,” while all the American men did the same (though they listed what it meant in the American context). The Cameroonian and American women also made lists of what our respective cultures considered ideal for women. When we all came back together to share and discuss, we found that the Cameroonian and American lists had a lot in common. The Cameroonians also readily admitted that several of the traits that marked “being a man” were not really positive, like drinking a lot and being violent. Interestingly, Cameroonians had no problem with any of the things listed that women should do, including being submissive. Still, I think both these both these sessions helped illustrate that strict gender roles can weigh on both men and women. These aren’t only women’s issues.

A session on the third day turned out less successfully. By that point the focus of the conference had turned to gender-based violence. One activity entailed the men and women splitting into two groups (this time the Americans and Cameroonians were together) and making lists of things that they did on a daily basis to avoid being on the receiving end of gender-based violence. In the room with the women, the group started listing things like avoiding secluded and poorly lit places after dark, wearing modest clothing, avoiding strange men, and going places with other people rather than alone. When the two groups came back together we found that the men had listed things like having a plan in mind and having clear objectives in life. These are things Cameroonian men like to talk about when they talk about the problems with delinquent youths. I’m not entirely sure, however, how these issues relate to gender-based violence, and do think that should have been questioned. On a daily basis, do they think to themselves, I need to have a plan and a goal, and the reason is because otherwise I might be raped?

Sylvie kind of started out like this, but then she went straight on to making fun of the men and their list. Throughout the room, some men started to laugh along and make fun of the list too, and others just tuned out completely. What wasn’t happening, though, at least not with the vast majority of men in the room, was them taking the issue seriously and engaging with it.

During lunch I talked to one of the male Volunteers who was there when the men were making their list, and he said that at the time all the Cameroonian men seemed to be taking the exercise seriously and were earnest in their suggestions. Why, then, did many of them start laughing along when Sylvie made fun of their list? Why didn’t any of them try to explain their reasoning?

The point of this exercise was to point out the daily struggles women often face and that, yes, maybe men are often somewhat sheltered from these same struggles. But when it came to the discussion portion of the session, it was lead in such a way that the most of the men weren’t really listening. They saw that their contributions were being belittled, and they shut down.

Look, it’s not that I think that Cameroonian men are delicate flowers and we need to put their feelings before all else, because that’s not at all the point. The point is that if we want to help women in Cameroon, the way to do it probably isn’t to alienate the other half of the population. The point is that if we want attitudes to change across a society, then we need a dialogue that includes people from all parts of it.

And there is no dialogue if one side isn’t listening.