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



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.



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

The Wild, Wild East

In January I had to head down to the capitol for my medical Mid-Service conference. This involved something of a scavenger-hunt of a checklist of people to meet with, cups to poop in, “best practices” presentations to give and watch, and a lot of walking back and forth between the Peace Corps offices and the hotel where Volunteers were staying since the transit house was being packed up to move to a new location. There was also a dental appointment in there that somehow involved my face getting much wetter than could possibly be necessary.

That’s long over, though, and I am happy to report that at the end of the week I was given a clean bill of health. Due to some scheduling changes, I also ended the week with another awkward week before my friend Kristin would be coming from the US, and I would need to meet up with her at the airport in Yaoundé. Traveling back to my post is expensive and takes multiple days in each direction, so what to do with that week? Go see a new region, of course!

Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

Lomié, East. Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

My friend and former region mate, Grant, lives in Lomié, in the East Region, right next to Cameroon’s Dja Faunal Reserve. I had been planning to visit him at his original post next to the Faro Reserve in the North when his post was closed after that French family got kidnapped about a year ago. Now he’s working with a new national park, in a different biome, and much farther away from my town, but I’ve finally managed to pay him a visit! Another Volunteer, Shannon, and her boyfriend, Kevin, both of whom live and work in Cameroon’s North West Region, also came along.

The first sign we had that the East was truly a horse of a different color came when we arrived in Abong-Mbang, where we would have to change buses. Northerners tend to be more reserved and laid back (and also more culturally conservative). When in Yaoundé, those of us who live in the northern regions tend to complain about how rude Southerners are, getting in your face, and especially calling out at white people and harassing women (“Le blanc! La blanche! Ma cherie!”). People in Abong-Mbang, take it to a whole different level. We reached our new bus, paid, and claimed our seats, and then once the bus started to fill up, the first argument started. We were in a coaster bus, designed to seat 4 across, though usually forced to accommodate 5 adults across throughout Cameroon (children don’t count). This bus would be 6 to a row, or so the guy from the agency insisted. We yelled right back at him that there were already 5 in our row and there was simply no space. We eventually got our way (for the time being), and soon enough the agency guy who had been yelling at us was joking with Grant about how he was traveling with multiple women.

Our already packed bus did end up picking up another woman on the road who ended up in our row, but she seemed perfectly happy to sit in the lap of a Cameroonian man. The kicker though, was another man, who claimed he was a teacher and who had been drinking sachets of liquor from the time the bus had left. By half way through the dusty five hour ride, he was standing up in the moving bus, yelling at all the other passengers, giving a “lesson” in English, making fun of the Chinese, and occasionally taunting us white people. The Cameroonian passengers mostly just seemed entertained by his antics.

We eventually did make it to Lomié though, after a flat tire and being coated by a thick layer of red dust, around 9 at night (and this was dry season, so the road was in good shape). I bucket bathed twice before daring to touch the clean sheets of Grant’s guest bed.

The real point of our trip to the East, however, was the Dja Reserve itself. Grant has been working with the delegation for the Ministry of Forestry in Lomié to help set up an ecotourism program to for visitors to go into the reserve. We were to be the first group of the season, and as such were a bit of a test run for the program.

So on our first full day in Lomié, the four of us headed over to the local MINFOF delegation to discuss the arrangements for our trip – how long it would be, where we would go, and how much it would all cost. The prices actually only worked out to about $70 per person for a three day trip, and Grant would be going for free. I don’t know if there was a miscalculation involved, but all-in-all, definitely a good deal.

On the first day of our trip, we showed up at the MINFOF office around 8 a.m., as directed… and then actually set out around 10. L’heure africaine. We were hiking into the Dja from Lomié itself, so we followed our guide from MINFOF, through the middle of town, and then through farm land and several Baka encampments before actually entering the reserve a couple of hours later. The terrain changed a lot during this time: from the town, to obviously cultivated farmland, to parts of the forest that clearly had been cleared at some point and now sported thick underbrush, to the rainforest itself, with tall trees and dappled lighting that seldom reached to forest floor. By the time that we were actually in the forest, the temperatures weren’t actually too hot, thanks to the copious amounts of shade, but we were still sweating buckets from the exertion of the hike, even with a trail to follow. With the humidity of the rainforest, my clothes wouldn’t be dry again for the three days of the trip.

Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

A Baka encampment. Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

Me, Grant, Kevin, and our Baka guide near the beginning of our hike. Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

When we set up camp on the first day, we had only actually been hiking about 4 hours total, but I know I was ready to call it a day. Hiking through rainforest is a bit more challenging than hiking a well-cleared path, and I was also feeling pretty dehydrated. I finished off the rest of the 2 ½ liters of water I had been carrying as soon as we stopped. Grant handed out pieces of the dark chocolate that he had brought, and that actually made me feel better almost instantly. Our guide and eco-guard cleared a campsite by machete a little ways off the trail and next to a stream, and then got a fire going and the food cooking as Grant, Shannon, Kevin, and I set up our two tents. We were all ravenous by the time we had our early dinner of rice with tomato sauce, sardines, and a few veggies mixed in. After dinner, we played cards while stream water boiled on the fire for us to drink.

Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

The eco-guard demonstrating how to drink water from a vine. Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

Day two began with omelets, bread, and Nescafé, followed by breaking camp and putting our packs back on our backs. We hiked farther into the forest for about an hour, before hiding our bags a little ways off the path and continuing on a bit without them to weigh us down. Our goal at this point was to hopefully see some wild animals, since this was the day we would be the farthest into the rainforest and away from civilization. We tried to stay as silent as possible while making our way through the forest, and eventually, our guide told us to hold up. He could hear monkeys up in the trees ahead of us! We started inching slowly along the trail, trying to keep our noise to a minimum to avoid scaring them off, and staring up into the trees to try to catch a glimpse. Shannon and Grant ended up following our Baka guide off the trail a ways, while Kevin and I hung back with the eco-guard and eventually were able to see the monkeys from the trail. Sure enough, there were little orange animals leaping from tree to tree up in the canopy. Unfortunately, they were too far away and moving too quickly for pictures.

After our monkey sighting, we eventually managed to regroup, and then decided we were ready to hike back the couple of hours to where we had stashed our bags so that we could set up camp. That evening, our guide and eco-guard again cleared a campsite for us a little bit off the trail and near a stream for water.

This time, however, the location they chose was not far enough back from the trail to not be visible from it. Between that evening and the next morning when we broke camp, we actually ended up seeing 8 poachers in 4 groups of 1 to 3. Of course they weren’t volunteering the information of their status as poachers, but it is actually illegal to enter the Dja Reserve without paying for an entry permit and the services of a guide and eco-guard.

The eco-guards’ role as a part of the Cameroonian government is that of something between soldiers and park rangers who are charged with protecting Cameroon’s reserves. Those who go into the Faro Reserve in the North are usually armed with guns, since the Nigerian poachers they often come across mean serious business and violence between the two groups had been escalating by the time Grant was evacuated from his old post for other reasons. On our first day in the Dja we had actually asked our eco-guard why he was not carrying a gun, and he had replied (in French, of course), that his first weapon was his mouth.

So with each time that poachers came by our camp, the eco-guard talked to them in the local language while we mostly just sat by awkwardly conversing amongst ourselves. All the poachers were clearly Baka who were most likely hunting bush meat to sell and feed their families rather than killing elephants to sell ivory on the black market. The eco-guard obviously didn’t have the man-power by himself to arrest anyone, especially considering the possible risks that would end up posing to the rest of us, so it was mostly just an uncomfortable situation to see illegal activity blatantly taking place while he was unable to perform his job protecting the reserve. In the morning before we broke camp, one group of poachers even gave the eco-guard part of a carcass of a smaller antelope-like animal, presumably in an attempt to bribe him for his silence.

Shannon after climbing into one of the huge trees.

Shannon after climbing into one of the huge trees.

That final day in the Dja was mostly just hiking back the way we came to get back to Lomié. Of course we were all tired by this point, and the excitement of heading back to town had more to do with the prospect of being able to bathe, put on clean clothes, and eat a good meal of chicken and fried plantains rather than potential monkey sightings. On our way back, however, we also stopped to rest in one of the Baka encampments outside the reserve but still about an hour from town, and then found ourselves sitting and drinking palm wine with the Baka for about an hour while we passed around the last of the peanuts we’d brought with us.

We did eventually make it back to Lomié, a little later than we had originally anticipated, and all separately wrote out at least a page evaluating the experience and offering suggestions regarding things like what might make the program more appealing to other tourists (find a way to provide water that isn’t collected from a stream and boiled, provide a somewhat more substantial lunch, etc.) and possible programs to discourage poaching in the forest, both to protect threatened species and so that it is more likely that animals can be seen.

And that night I slept amazingly well.

Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

A baobab tree. Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

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.

0 to 14,000 Feet

The Mauna Kea Observatories

The Mauna Kea Observatories

There are few places in the world where you can drive from sea level to almost 14,000 feet in a matter of a few hours, but this is what we did to visit the Mauna Kea Observatories on the Big Island of Hawaii.

The path to the summit of Mauna Kea

The path to the summit of Mauna Kea

The summit of Mauna Kea stands at 13,800 feet. Mount Cameroon, which is the tallest mountain in West Africa, is 13,255 feet tall by contrast. Building the observatories at the top of Mauna Kea was a pretty controversial move. The mountain is a very sacred place in the Hawaiian tradition and there was a lot of opposition to scientists coming in and using the land. The thing is that Mauna Kea also currently has the best seeing in the northern hemisphere, with its height and location in the Pacific Basin. It is because of the observatories that are up there now that humans have been able to see planets orbiting other stars.

My dad is into these sorts of things – observatories and telescopes. In fact, he makes his living making some of the chips and sensors that make them work. So he is the one that called up the observatories to organize a tour for his family to go see the Gemini North Telescope. He was asked if he was interested in an educational or professional tour – apparently they are trying to discourage tourists from going up there. A professional tour it was.

The next barrier to getting to the Mauna Kea Observatories is that driving up there violates your contract with all but one rental car company on the island. So we rented a 4 wheel drive vehicle for the day and started on our way up. During the drive the landscape went from old lava flows to grassy hills to shrub land, until the plant life was pretty much nonexistent and it looked like we were on another planet.

Once we were up there, we faced another challenge: the altitude. We had all spent an hour at about 9,000 feet where there was a small visitors’ center and where we met our guide, Janice, and had lunch together in the cafeteria where the scientists eat. She told us that the altitude affects people in unpredictable ways: that she had taken triathletes to the top that ended up fainting from the thin air, as well as 400 pound native Hawaiians who were perfectly fine. She and my dad disagreed on whether it was a good idea to have the all-you-can-eat ice cream that was included in the lunch. My dad claimed that eating too much would make all of our blood rush to our stomachs, leaving less to get oxygen to our brains. Janice said that she thought the slight increase in blood sugar actually helped. We all (including my dad) opted for a modest amount of ice cream. In the end there was no fainting on our trip up. I would occasionally start to feel lightheaded, and was certainly concentrating on my breathing much more than usual, but none of us got too weird.

And the views were otherworldly.

The view from outside the Gemini North Observatory

The view from outside the Gemini North Observatory


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.