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.

 

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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.

Another Year

(Or going to post, two birthdays, and Thanksgiving in northern Cameroon)

Wednesday the 27th of November was my birthday and also the one year anniversary of me arriving at post for the first time.

The road to my post late one afternoon.

The road to my post late one afternoon.

I still remember that day from just over a year ago. It’s possible my mind has twisted it and lent it extra color in the time since, but the memory is vivid: pulling away from Will’s first post, and looking out the back window of the van and seeing him still standing dejected in the middle of the road outside his new house, surrounded by a swam of children, his wallet having just been stolen; cresting the small mountain between Will’s post and mine and descending into the valley where my post lies; being unable to hold back my grin and exclaiming to Grant how beautiful the landscape around us was as we bumped along getting nearer to town. Though I had never been there before, and though I was still a little afraid, seeing the dry brush-covered hills it already felt a little like I was coming home.

Of course in February there was that first kidnapping, and Grant was evacuated from his post in the bush past my town and now lives in the East Region. Then in April Will was granted his request to move to Guider, a small city north of Garoua, and leave behind the tiny village that was never really right for him.

So now I’m the only Volunteer for hours, and sometimes the distance does feel a little trying. Yet it’s hard to imagine being posted somewhere else, especially now near the beginning of dry season, during cold season, when the hills around me have taken on that brown-green-gold pallet so familiar from a life spent mostly in Southern California – even the dirt is the same color. And in the evening, when I get lucky and no one is burning trash or setting brush fires, when the sun is just going down and the heat of the day starts to dissipate, I sometimes get a whiff of that particular smell of nighttime that brings to mind memories of nights at summer camp. The oaks and the pines have been replaced by acacia and neem, but the wild sage is still there, as well as that crisp freshness to the air. I’m not really one for homesickness, but that smell and sensory memory does come with a distinct feeling of nostalgia.

Fast forward a year and I spent much of my birthday on the road again. I went to visit my friend Laura, who is a Volunteer in a village up north of Garoua, and collect on my gift exchange gift from last Christmas, which was a three course meal, prepared by Laura at her post. Her village only recently got electricity, and still has no cell phone service, so hers is a bit of a different Volunteer experience than mine. I ended up having a lovely birthday dinner with her and Will (whose new post is only an hour away from Laura’s), and then curled up with Laura’s dog (my new best friend) for a screening of Casablanca with Laura’s new ample electricity.

The next day the cooking frenzy really started. Those of us in the North didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving until Friday, but on Thursday Laura steamed, pureed, and seasoned a large squash that would eventually become two delicious “pumpkin” pies and put together a tasty quinoa salad. I got to work on a couple loaves of Dutch oven bread. By that evening when we got to Guider, where the Thanksgiving festivities would take place, I had two loaves of bread and another bowl of dough that was almost ready to bake. Over a dinner of Dutch oven pizza (with Velveeta for cheese) chez Jack, the six of us already in Guider discussed things like Jack’s plans for picking up the live turkeys the next morning, whether there would be enough food, and, now that it had been a year since my training group swore in and went to post, the new Volunteers that had just arrived in the North and who I would meet during the celebrations the next day.

In the end, I made five loaves of bread (two sourdough herb, one plain sourdough, and two whole wheat oatmeal cranberry), only one large turkey was butchered and cooked, and along with everything else people brought there was way too much food. I was a little out of it for most of the day (dehydration?), but meeting all the new Volunteers to the region was great and they all seem friendly and generally awesome.

It wasn’t the most traditional American Thanksgiving. A bit of confusion in the market meant we had mashed sweet potatoes rather than more traditional mashed potatoes and the only cranberries present were dried and baked into bread. It was probably a bit odd for the new Volunteers to be spending it mostly with people they had only just met.

Still, while I’m here, these other Volunteers in my region are a bit like my family. Even in ones who I don’t feel particularly close to, I recognize that there are certain things that we share. We have similar understandings of what the holidays are like in America, though we’ve never actually spent them together there. We’ve become amused or frustrated by similar aspects of Cameroonian life and culture – things Cameroonians might not even realize don’t feel normal to us – that are so different than what we had been used to. We all have some similar sensibility – though our individual reasons may have differed – that lead us to leaving all of that familiarity for two years to come live and work half a world away.

It’s a community that I’m thankful to have while I am here.

Le Fête de Mouton

Crowds around Garoua's Grand Mosque the morning of the Fête

Crowds around Garoua’s Grand Mosque the morning of the Fête

Tabaski, or the Fête de Mouton (Celebration of the Lamb), as it is commonly called around these parts, commemorates that Old Testament story in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham is totally going to do it, too, and has his knife out and ready to kill the boy when an angel comes down to stop him, God having already been convinced of Abraham’s devotion due to his willingness to go through with the deed. Abraham is then told to sacrifice a lamb, instead, and now Muslims also do this yearly to show their own devotion.

While my post has a large Muslim population, most of my friends and neighbors are Christians, so I decided to go to Garoua for the fête where I would be able to celebrate with the rich Muslims of the Marouaré neighborhood around the Grand Mosque. My friend and fellow Volunteer, Catherine, lives in this neighborhood, so I spent the day with her and tagged along to all of the celebrations she was invited to, enjoying some good Cameroonian Muslim hospitality.

Our day started at 8 a.m. when we went to watch the prayer at the Grand Mosque. The large grounds around the mosque were completely filled with people, even overflowing to block the surrounding streets as well. Unfortunately we couldn’t see much besides the people near us praying, but usually during the morning prayer for Tabaski a ceremonial sheep is sacrificed on behalf of the whole community. Some of the police that were present tried to tell us as we were watching that we should go into the grounds to get closer and get a better look, but normally non-Muslims are not allowed into the Grand Mosque in Garoua, and no actual Muslims were telling us to do that, so we politely declined.

With the prayer finished, we went back to Catherine’s place to make ourselves a delicious breakfast of pancakes with mango jam (Tabaski meal #1) while we waited to watch her neighbors sacrifice their own sheep. It wasn’t long after we had finished that some of her neighbor children came over to inform us that their family was waiting for us to come eat with them. The marathon of food had begun.

Tabaski meal #2 consisted of rice, bread, a tasty stew of cabbage and some sort of red meat (probably either beef or sheep, though I am not exactly a connoisseur of meats), and a wonderfully gingery tea. In the fashion of any gracious Cameroonian host, Catherine’s neighbor told us again and again that we should eat more (Il faut manger!).

The rams, post-sacrifice, with the Cameroonian dagger

The rams, post-sacrifice, with the Cameroonian dagger

It was around the time that we finished this second meal that that two rams arrived at the compound, ready for sacrifice. Apparently, big rams are actually the most desirable (and most expensive) animals for the day’s sacrifice. Those families that cannot afford to buy a ram instead sacrifice a smaller lamb or a goat (or nothing at all if they just don’t have the money). Catherine and I made our way to the section of the compound where the rams were to be sacrificed, and a few of the women asked us if we weren’t afraid to watch. There was a hole dug into the ground for the blood to drain into (I have no idea if this has any significance or if it simply makes for less mess), and the men and boys of the family were binding the first sheep’s legs to keep it from thrashing. The traditional dagger came out (it didn’t look super sharp, but then it got the job done quite well), and all the boys held the ram down while Catherine’s neighbor’s older brother (the oldest man present) cut its neck deep. The blood spurt into the hole, and the sheep convulsed. The second ram kept calmly munching at some leaves nearby. Eventually, when enough blood had drained from the first ram, it was carried over to a piece of butcher paper, and it was time for the second one to be bound and sacrificed.

As we were walking back to the Peace Corps office for a bit of rest (it was starting to get quite hot), we saw a third ram arriving at the compound for sacrifice. There genuinely is a lot of poverty in this country, but Catherine’s neighbors? They are not poor. We had asked how much these sheep usually cost at market, and the prices they gave us ranged from about $80 to $140 an animal, depending mostly on size.

Catherine, her coworker Eba, and I in our fête outfits

Catherine, her coworker Eba, and I in our fête outfits

Back at the office we did get a few hours to rest, digest, and ingest a few vegetables (Tabaski meal/snack #3), and then at around 3 p.m. it was off to Catherine’s counterpart’s house with another volunteer, Mayela, for the main feast of the day (Tabaski meal #4). When we arrived, Nafi immediately offered us our choice of Fanta or Coke, and then also set out bottles of gingery lemonade and a sweet minty milk drink. We chatted amongst ourselves and another of Catherine’s coworkers from her host organization, ACMS, while Nafi finished preparing and laying out the feast. And a feast it was! There was couscous (as we know it, not the Cameroonian kind) and macaroni pasta for the starches, fried plantains, grilled lamb and lamb ribs, a lamb stew with a more tomato-based sauce, as well as a bowl of cooked intestines (which I managed to avoid). As we ate, the topics of conversation ranged from the meaning of the fête and the price of sheep, to the meaning of love and how people date in Cameroon.

Stuffed, we finally begged off around 6, saying we had to go meet up with the other Garoua Volunteer, Lola. We headed back to the office to find her, and then after a while the four of us went to Catherine’s again and had a final meal of more lamb (the rams from that morning) and tea with her neighbors (Tabaski meal #5). Fortunately, Lola had not been feasting all afternoon, so she was able to eat most of what was on the communal plates of meat placed in front of us.

In a lot of ways the Fête de Mouton reminded me of the American Thanksgiving holiday. Yes, it is more explicitly religious (though I would wager that the original Thanksgiving was pretty overtly religious as well), but it is also about sharing a big meal (with lamb instead of turkey as the centerpiece) with your extended family, inviting over those friends that don’t already have a place to go, and perhaps taking a moment to reflect on those things that are good in your life.

Next month the Volunteers in my region will be gathering in Guider for an American-style Thanksgiving feast, but until then, I am thankful that I got to experience a Cameroonian Fête de Mouton with wonderful people in Garoua.

Eggplants!

I think I have alluded to this before, but food can be something of a difficulty at my post, at least if I want to eat well.

The staple of the local cuisine is couscous, which is a ball of starch about the size of a fist or a bit bigger made from corn, rice, cassava, or millet. Corn and rice seem to be the most common varieties where I live (and everyone grows corn). From what I have heard, millet is the norm in most of the Far North region, and cassava is much more common in the Grand South. Couscous is usually served with a sauce and eaten by grabbing chunks with your hands, mushing it with your fingers to make a small spoon-like impression, using it to scoop up the sauce, and then popping the whole thing in your mouth. Where I live the sauce is usually made of some combination of traditional leaves, peanuts, and okra. There might be some meat in there if you can afford it.

If I wanted to eat couscous and sauce every day, I would never have any issues eating in my town. I would never even have to cook. But aside from this diet sometimes being a bit bland and boring for my taste, I sometimes just miss other foods.

The thing is that while my daily market at post (at least I have a daily market!) can be reliably counted on to supply traditional leaves, peanuts, and okra, as well as onion and garlic and often tomatoes (as long as I am not too picky about the quality), there is not that much else available. There is also a vegetable that looks like a giant green tomato that is called aubergine (the French word for eggplant) and is like an especially bitter version of an eggplant. Cameroonians eat them raw like apples, which is so strange to me. In September there was fresh corn, and in February my vegetable selection will improve a bit when lettuce and carrots come into season and I can actually sometimes fine them at post, as well.

As a result, I am constantly bringing food back to my post after trips to Garoua. I can buy rice, flour, and spaghetti at post, but I usually bring back lentils to go with the rice, oatmeal for easy breakfasts at my house (I can usually get eggs at post, too), olive oil (I can get cotton oil at post), soy sauce, spices (ginger is available everywhere in the north, but other things I buy in Garoua), and lots and lots of vegetables. The week after I get back from post I get to eat things like potatoes, zucchini, eggplant, bell peppers, carrots, and leeks, but then as it gets further from my last trip to the city my vegetable intake becomes more and more limited to onions and sometimes tomatoes or fried okra (it’s just so slimy prepared any other way).

Last week, however, I had an amazingly good day at the market. The tomatoes looked especially good, so I bought twice as many as I usually do, and there were small bell peppers, which happens occasionally, but not at all often. I was feeling pretty happy with my purchases for the day (which also included onions and garlic, as well as smoked fish for my cat), and was on my way out of the market area when I looked down and saw a pile of eggplants. I stopped and did a double take. These weren’t the squat green aubergines commonly found around the North. These were the long, deep purple vegetables we know and love in America. I bought two. The old woman selling them suggested that I should just buy the whole pile, and I actually stopped to consider it. I was planning a trip to Garoua three days later, though, so it seemed silly to leave a whole pile of eggplants lying around the house while I was gone.

Dutch Oven Bread

Fresh Baked Bread!

Fresh Baked Bread!

As you can imagine, things are sometimes a bit more basic here in Peace Corps Cameroon. I don’t have running water to make showering or doing dishes easier; nor do I have air conditioning to cool off during hot season – at least not chez moi. There are volunteers in Cameroon who actually do have one or both of those things, but those of us not living the Posh Corps lifestyle have learned to make do.

One thing that is pretty standardized across Peace Corps households, however, is the kitchen setup. All of my cooking is done with a stovetop connected by a rubber tube to a gas tank, kind of like a camping stove, but all-around bigger. When I first got to post and attempted to assemble this (by which I definitely mean watched my community host put it together), I couldn’t get my stove to stay lit. After a few days of buying all my food already prepared, I finally gave in and duct taped shut the mysterious holes in the pipes under the stove, and voila, it worked! So far I haven’t blown up, either.

I should probably also note that gas stoves are a little less common in Cameroonian households. It cost me over $100 to buy the setup in the first place, though most of that was for the tank itself, which is refillable. Cameroonians who don’t want to dish out the money or can’t afford it cook over wood fires for everything – grilling, baking, frying, you name it.

What my kitchen still lacks (besides running water and a microwave) is an oven. It is possible to buy an oven in Cameroon, and also run it off of a gas tank, and I know of at least one volunteer that even has one. Heck, my host family in Bafia had one. What do I have instead? A big heavy pot with a lid and some stones on the bottom. Plop it on the gas stove, preheat, and that’s my oven.

Dutch oven baking is a little bit limited. You can’t really control the temperature too well, and no light goes on or off to tell you when it’s finished preheating. You can’t broil. The heat isn’t always even. It’s a smaller space, so you are limited in what you can put in it, and it doesn’t get as dry. Still, I have successfully baked or witnessed someone baking all of the following in a Dutch oven: pies, brownies, cakes, cookies, bread, and even bagels. I think there is even a Volunteer in the East Region that has conquered Dutch oven lasagna.

My own Dutch oven exploits at post have been mostly limited to brownies and bread. But oh, have I baked a lot of bread. Bread baking was something that I sometimes did in America too, using a recipe based off the No-Knead Bread that Mark Bittman wrote about in the New York Times several years ago, and it only took a little tinkering to get used to the new climate and lack of conventional oven.

It was worth it, though, because bread is not a common thing at my post, and what I can buy is pretty mediocre and has traveled a ways to get there. Now I can have all kinds of delicious and freshly baked breads. I even made a sourdough starter back during hot season (it was so hot in my kitchen that it smelled sour within two days), though I mostly use that as a flavoring when I use it rather than for leavening.  I have also witnessed the look on my teenaged neighbor’s face when I gave her a first taste of sourdough bread and she scrunched up her face and declared (In French, of course) “It’s sour! Did you put lemon in it?” I suppose sourdough, with its history and origins, is a pretty American thing.

So here is my recipe for Dutch oven bread:

3 to 3 ½ cups flour

2 tsp salt

½ tsp yeast

Optional flavorings (sourdough starter, oatmeal, honey, nuts, dried fruit, herbs, etc.)

Water as needed (start with about a cup)

Combine the flour, salt, yeast, and any optional flavorings and mix. Add water and knead it together until it forms a somewhat shaggy dough (it should stick to itself more than it sticks to you). Then, cover the bowl with big plastic bag so the dough doesn’t dry out, and let it rise in a warm part of your kitchen for about 8 hours or overnight. One it had risen it should look something like this:

After the first rise

After the first rise

Next, wet your hands and punch down the dough and knead it just a few times. Now you can shape it however you want. At post I have a small loaf pan that I use, so I grease the loaf pan with some oil and put the dough in there for the final rise. If I don’t have a loaf pan available, though, I just grease whatever flat pan I have, shape the dough into a boule, and place it on the pan seam side down like so:

A shaped boule

A shaped boule

The final rise should take about 2 hours more, until the dough has almost doubled in size again. About a half hour before you are ready to bake, start to heat up your oven. You want it hot (about 450*F if you have a real oven).

Just before you put the bread in, put about a ¼ cup of water in the bottom of the Dutch oven to create steam (or put a pan of water in the bottom of your regular oven). Bake the bread for about 30 to 45 minutes, until the top starts to get golden. When you take the bread out, the bottom of the loaf or boule should sound hollow.

It will be easier to slice the longer you let it cool, but I usually only last about 20 minutes. There are few things more wonderful than butter melting on freshly baked bread.

America!

I arrived back in the land of supermarkets and hot and cold running water (that you can drink right out of the tap!) for my two week summer vacation two Fridays ago on July 26th. Since then I have developed a sort of elevator pitch explanation in response to the constant asking of the same questions by different people (So how do you like Africa? What exactly do you do there? What is the food like?). It has been pretty gratifying, though, to hear a lot of people tell me that they’ve been reading this blog – so thanks, guys, even those of you who don’t comment!

I have also constantly stuffed my face with bagels and cream cheese, sushi, Mexican food, and many other delicious things I hadn’t seen for a while.

A California burrito in California

A California burrito in California

Last Tuesday I drove down to Santa Monica to meet my friend, Kellye, and go have an open air food truck dinner. As we sat on the grass and munched on El Salvadorian street food and Sweet Arlene’s cupcakes, one of her industry friends came to join us. It came up that I had been in Cameroon with the Peace Corps for the last ten months, and he asked me whether I was now disgusted by American excess and consumerism. I responded almost immediately: “But I love it!”

Pretty soon the conversation moved on, but I continued to ponder the question. Ok, it was probably a little silly that we were sitting on a nice lawn in an area that gets far less annual rainfall than the North of Cameroon, and I had been constantly astounded by the amount of packaging that comes with seemingly everything in America (having no trash pickup for a few months will really make you notice that sort of thing). And it probably is excessive to have a separate car on the road for every adult that can drive – but how often have I wished for my own car and the right to drive while in Cameroon? (Answer: pretty often.) I’m not saying that the American way of life is perfect, but it sure is comfortable, and it’s home, and boy do I find myself missing it sometimes.

Last Friday I saw a friend from high school (and middle school, and oh yeah, we went to the same elementary school, too!) get married, and it was beautiful, and even more friends were in town for the wedding. By now Mary and Barry are off on their honeymoon in Italy. Best wishes to both of them! As for me, I am currently enjoying my second week in America on a family vacation in Hawaii before I start the trip back to Cameroon on Sunday.

To answer that first questions (How do you like Africa?): it is in turns really amazing and really frustrating. I don’t know what I would do with myself if I didn’t go back, but I also know I’ll be missing life here in America when I do.