Tuesday, June 16, 2015

cambodian hospital.

so yeah, cambodian hospital has now been officially checked off my bucket list.

i wasn't feeling so well, had this nasty cough, which turned into a truly painful cramp on my side. not good. as i laid there sorrily in my lovely hotel bed, i grabbed my phone to start googling my symptoms and diagnosed myself with either a collapsed lung, an oncoming heart attack or pneumonia. when things didn't get better i then looked up the french embassy and called myself a nurse listed on their site. she sounded quite terrified when i told her my symptoms and showed up in less than 5 minutes. a sweet young girl my age. she was very reassuring, very nice, but said yeah, i'm pretty sure you have pneumonia, but i'm just a nurse, we need to call a doctor.

she calls her doctor friend and convinces her to do a house call, which she never does, but, i guess i was pretty bad, and she made a quick 70$ for prescribing me codeine and general antibiotics, which my thankfully very helpful dutch co-worker, Ludo went out into the dark of the night to find.
the antibiotics started working immediately, the goo coming out of my lungs quickly changed color, a more reassuring chocolate than lime green. but at some point in the night i thought this isn't going away, i'm going to have to be airlifted to Bangkok and Ludo will have to sort through my dirty underwear and just the thought of Ludo and my underwear terrified me more, and made it even harder to breathe which gave me more pain and ultimately, i waited around until the more appropriate hour of 5:46 to call back the nurse. i only had to whisper this isn't good and boom, she showed up, took one look at me and said, nope, and tuk tuk is not going to cut it. she called her other buddy who runs an ambulance service, worked out a bed in a clinic, called my insurance etc..etc..wonderful.
she starts telling me her life story, two kids, a husband, they love phnom penh, trying to make a living, i'm in a huge daze but somehow scramble out of bed because i really wanted to give her a WWF t-shirt? I was loopy, codeine. whatever.

a little later this old barefoot cambodian man with a alpine rope toss hairdo in a white gown is sitting indian style in bed next to me. there's a portable heart monitor and another asian nurse in a mask, lots of other people and stuff. hotel staff, ambulance people. Ludo is in the ajoining room, sleeping through it all. but i let him. the doctor speaks this choppy french and tells me he will take me to a hospital. and in one sweep lifts me up and carries me away like we're on a honeymoon...down two flights of stairs and through the hotel restaurant and onto a stretcher. ambulance sirens, lots of honking, crazy morning rush hour as far as i can tell. the nurse follows us on her scooter.

i got a chest x ray, lots of juice through an IV and suddenly i felt awesome. like a million bucks. lots of nice french doctors and staff, and a little guy comes with a take out menu, i can order whatever i want! iced cappucino and 2 hard boiled eggs? sure.
i'm brought into my own room, and the iv juices keep flowing, there are a million channels on TV, including this fantastic japanese game show re-runs which is my new favorite thing.

Ludo comes in and is all, hey! they have that show in holland, and then we watch funny dutch youtube copies, with wee man and celebrities. i watched hours and hours of animal planet, just smiling.
at one point a nice fluent French speaking doctor came in and encouraged me to "get out and walk around a bit." he pulls the curtain open and i squint and hiss like a vampire - out there is a crazy asia Scene, People cooking on the sidewalks, hacking at fish with giant cleavers, the orange shrouded monks with yellow umbrellas begging for food.
another doctor working the night shift did not speak such good French. he only said two words: pipi caca? and i didn't know if this was a yes no question, or maybe a what Color and texture kind of deal, because really, i just pooped a gay pride flag, doctor.  
lots more visits from Ludo who brought random take-out and assured me "really, it's just smelly asia out there-you're better on the inside." he spends hours on the futon at the foot of my bed, inspecting all the papers they give me to sign. one night my ambulance driver offered Ludo a ride back to the hotel on his motorcycle and it was not only thrilling, but funny because this cambodian guy apparently owns a 70s dutch police jacket, and a whistle.

there are blood tests and more visits from this lady in a turquoise suit who keeps bringing up the bill, my insurance, whom, whenever i call they say, yes, yes, we have talked to the clinic, and the clinic keeps saying no no, money money, and then they take my passport. the nurse comes back and she's like, don't let them take your passport! you won't be able to leave the country until you pay! another colleague comes and gets it back, and finally i'm discharged on a sunday, while i keep telling them, it's still saturday night in Germany, they won't answer, just be patient. finally, they dump all my medical reports on my chest and wheel me out to the fanciest tuktuk i have ever seen. the cadillac of tuktuks. the guy is even polishing it with a cloth.

back at the hotel, Ludo and i lounge by the pool and catch up and order watermelon juice. i go through the medical report and see all the drugs they pumped me with: Xanax. tons of it. no wonder i had such an awesome time! Ludo starts googling all the pills they sent me home with. Ulcer medicine? the nurse calls me hourly, helps me sift through the what i actually need to take, and what i can sell or give away, and i keep saying that she should just come by, and i will pay her, for her time, she really saved my life, doesn't even know me, i'll give her a t-shirt!

when the hotel manager guy comes over and he's all wishing me well and then starts asking for my nurse's phone number. i'm thinking, sorry, buddy, she's married, not for you, and he's all no, no, she was here last night, and well...she never paid her bill. and i'm thinking, this makes no sense, she lives here, why would she come to a hotel? she has a husband, two kids, she knows i was in the hospital, who? what? and Ludo is already rolling his eyes. the manager says he has video footage of her (there are cameras everywhere) but i am presuming this is a case of all white people look alike.

that's when Ludo and i go into sleuth mode: the mystery of the sexy nurse! i keep saying, there's no way, she's a respectable nurse! and so i track down through my phone all the times i called and then she came to see me, and we find her on the hotel cameras, with her red scooter, helmet, we are zooming in and screenshotting just like they do on TV. this is so law & order! we bring up the morning they carried me away! and then...3am saturday night, while i was in the hospital, yes, it seems, she arrives in a hot pink dress, with a man, drinks, goes to a room...and they leave out a back door (which she knew because of me!) on the same red scooter. the hotel manager calls her number, and her husband answers, he explains, husband hangs up. then she doesn't answer my calls. silence. nothing. i sent her a text - really? was it you? come on, i am dying to know....sexy mystery nurse, this story is better than what's on animal planet!

Friday, May 29, 2015


we are working on some projects with some villages in another province. we invited two chiefs to our workshop. they told me they took a 28 hour ferry down the congo river and are now in the capital. they attend all our pre-workshop meetings with a translator, always dressed in their official color: red. no one else in the village is allowed to wear red. 
one has a christmas sweatshirt and an inner tube covered in red fabric around his neck with real lion teeth on it: passed down from all the previous chiefs. he holds a wand with horse hair to wave away spirits and his hat has red feathers. the other one has a satin red shirt, a wooden baton and women's fashion glasses with rhinestones and a hat with shells sewn on. amazing.   
at one point they told a great long story, how if you want to marry a woman, you have to court her, and show her you are serious about your love. this is how things work in their village. and so if WWF wants to work with their village then we have to prove our love, and prove we are serious.
how do we do that?
we'd like two motorbikes please. we were promised motorbikes, but we have none, and we are tired of walking everywhere.
is that all your love costs? motorbikes are cheap.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


I found it a bit odd when I called Taxi Papi about our dinner plans his wife Mimie kept answering his phone. And why isn't she at work? And he didn't offer to come pick me up? It's ok, I found another guy with a really nice Japanese car, Vincent. He's a tough negotiator and drives a Toyota with the steering wheel on the right and a gps screen all in Japanese, with cartoon anime sky scrapers on it, like a video game set in Tokyo. This car is literally straight from Japan. He had a lot of interesting stories to tell about his days of driving ministers around and I even recommended him for a job at WWF. He said I was a blessing from God and gave me a pamphlet of gospel.
So I arrive at Papi's building, the trippy tall one with the Samsung sign on top, with amputees and beggars everywhere and Mimie is waiting at the entrance. They have a maze like path to their apartment across balconies and ledges and we walk through a little work zone where a guy is welding one of those cages you put air conditoners in. Sparks flying everywhere, and instead of welder goggles he has sweet aviator Ray-bans. Probably fake ones. I'm trying to take a picture when Mimi stops to tell me the bad news. Papi had a terrible accident, run over by a car on the huge boulevard. They didn't want to tell me on the phone.
We enter and there is Papi, smiling as ever with a huge head wound, foot cast, messy scars, it's absolutely awful. I dress their baby, Melchi in the Deutschland national team soccer jersey I brought and they tell me how it happened..middle of the busy morning, hit and run in the crosswalk, driver took off and they found the car later but can't locate the owner.
Papi looks tired and sore and I remark that at least his face is intact, which is most important, right? The cast on his ankle looks like a child put it on and I can only imagine what level of care the Congolese hospitals provide.
We eat a quiet meal while the baby sleeps in his chair on the floor. They keep trying to make me eat but I can't, because I feel sick and because the dish is full of teeny tiny fish you eat whole and are oh so spicy! 
Later on the extended family arrives and the apartment is full of people and kids trying to lighten the mood. The kids are arguing over the baby's uniform. World Champions I say, Germany! and they respond with Barcelona? Ronaldo? And I'm like, no, not Champions League, World Cup! They look at my blankly. ahhh, I guess DRC never qualifies so they don't care...We are all sitting in the living room in front of the TV. The brother in law comes in full camouflage military gear, and stores his red beret in the flagged flap on his shoulder. I quickly hand him the remote and salute him to change the channel, my colonel, but he's not the laughing type. 
We eat some pineapple and relax a bit but I can see Papi is clearly in pain so I decide to call it a night. Papi says the brother in law will bring me home, who looks at me with his beady red eyes and asks in a deep rumbling voice: "vous n'êtes pas véhiculé?" I am unvehicled, sir. 
My apartment is basically two rights at the intersection where the patachoux bakery is but there is a lengthy discussion of directions in Lingala with hand movements and "nonono! Pas la! Plus loin!" And then more Lingala, until finally he angles his beret on his head: time to go.
We exit downstairs where all the beggars scatter like ants, military guy apologizes for the state of his vehicle: an 80s Mercedes Sedan that is so busted up it looks wrinkled. Color: dull army green.
The door doesn't even close I have to hold it towards me with the handle which itself is barely affixed. The windshield is cracked in so many places it looks like it was pelted with baseballs. You hear all the parts of the undercarriage rattling and wanting to fall off, and I am dreading the turn into my dirt mess of a street which has potholes so deep there are small forests growing in some of them.
We cross all the intersections with non-working lights where you see the pedestrians racing terrified across the boulevard. At least at night I understand accidents can happen but during the day? ...
We turn well before the patachoux and meander through all these streets I have never seen, breezing through checkpoints and even past my old villa near the president's house. The driver is not talking, he is just turning left, and right, and left, and right and I am thinking he probably wants to disorient me before he pistol whips me. Suddenly we are in front of my house. But...how did you do that? My street is a dead end! He shrugs, smiles and reaches over to open the door. I get a beret salute and off he goes. 
The adorable, adaptable, ever surprising and completely undefinable Congolese.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

is this africa?

they say south africa isn't like the rest of africa, it's more europe, or the states, a world apart. well the world i am in jo-burg is sadly, like something out of alabama or the saddest part of kentucky or neveada, or...i don't know.

usually, our meetings in the south africa region are always in delightful safari lodges in bostwana, log cabin things where you can do a morning safari before breakfast and all the staff are attired in khaki. meals are outdoors on the zambezi river with lots of bug spray and everything caters to the australian tourist.
well my people didn't arrange this meeting, someone else did, and they wanted something convenient, easy to get to, and what is more accessible than the holiday inn johannesburg airport? not much. 
and so here i am, 22km from O.R. Tambo airport in a desolate expanse of strip malls that doesn't look any different from M.L.K. highway in Durham, NC. every 2 and a half minutes a deafening roar rises from the east, shakes all the buildings and glassware, a top gun flyby, with a peculiar engine grinding, metal on metal, every plane sounds different, you wonder if that's what's normal. moments after the plane seems to clip the 70s looking palm trees, with a dark shadow of the plane cutting through every sunbeam. it's totally trippy david lynch. our hotel suddenly had no power, each hallway a cave of darkness. no internet, no hot water. i thought jo-burg was europe! 
so i took the shuttle to the local mall. which was across the street but we had to meander through these different 6 lane highways. i asked the driver what people who don't have cars do and he laughed. he dropped me off at this rusty decrepit looking shopping centre called the East Rand Mall, but the s was missing so it was Ea t Rand. I asked him if I was going to have the time of my life there. ha. 
the major attraction was the "liquor zone," a series of low-cost beverage stores. there was a supermarket called the "pick n pay" and a really sad arcade. felt like a time warp. it was a maze of hallways, all under construction, and no maps. it seemed everyone was walking determinedly somewhere, like this was just a passage. i didn't recognize any of the shops. Woolworth still exists?
i found a store selling billtong, the classic dried beef jerky stuff. it was run by a real nice old lady who apologized profusely when i ordered 6$ worth of biltong, but when she weighed it, it was worth 7$. she was super sweet and had long fake nails and let me taste all the flavors. when i said i wanted it vacuum packed she sent me to the sister shop a few complicated bends down into the mall. there, i arrived and met her tired husband, who said he was closing shop after 20 years, and that i was leaving the tastiest biltong behind: bacon biltong, which is the best thing ever. and it was. all best quality beef! where do they make this stuff, in their garage?
i ate a sad salad in the foodcourt in a coffee shop, taking advantage of some free internet and hoofed it back to the inn. every parking lot is ringed by high fences with barbed wire, so you can only go out the auto exit through the booth. several times i found myself cornered like an animal, thinking if i could actually fit through the bars. i would turn around and walk around a building to find the staff of fastfood restaurants taking their smoke breaks and checking their cell phones. ony guy had taken off his shoes and was picking at his blisters. 

when it came time to cross the street back to my hotel, i was at some awkward multi-way intersection. no crossing lights for pedestrians. it was like double dutch jump rope, you observe the patterns for your opening and then you just hold your breath and go. it took a couple of cycles, but then i had it. i was at the corner on this green grassy knoll where women in blue jumpsuits were picking up garbage and speaking in their dialect. every stoplight had its homeless guy, begging, or a dude with sneakers around his neck to sell, along with car cigarette lighter phone chargers. what cars still have cigarette lighters? across the way were even more guys with sandwich boards, selling phone credit or house insurance. human billboards. rock bottom was the guy with one shoe and a half torn cardboard sign offering "same day, pain free abortions." shudder. everyone eyed me cautiously, like what is this white girl doing here? like how in Durham the only people walking MLK boulevard were the mexicans. Maybe south africa really is america, but this isn't the part you would ever want to be in. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

I Like-a-inhaca

as much as you struggle for good hospitality in africa, sometimes it just works out.
on the last night of our workshop i sat next to abdul, from the university. he lives out at the research station on inhaca island. i was meant to fly to south africa the next day for a lovely weekend stay at the jo-burg airport hotel, but he quickly persuaded me to change my flight. inhaca is paradise!
a bit buzzed after half a bottle of vinho verde i called over to my colleague carl sitting at the end of the dinner table, hey wanna go to inhaca this weekend? 
i arrange everything, says abdul. 
far out.
on saturday morning we arrive skeptically at the fish port, i am half expecting this to fall through and am already scrolling through the number of tour operators and hotels i stored in my phone during my brief research of the island - which didn't bring much, mostly hotels closed for renovations and numbers with insufficient digits to make sense.
at the port we are escorted to our reserved seats on the vodacom boat. a clear better alternative to the rusting movicel vessel half sinking portside. 
we lounge in our red plastic molded seats and two hours later come upon the quaint, idyllic ilha inhaca. 
we pay the little reserve entrance fee, and a man comes and introduces himself, fernando, he will take us to our house in his land cruiser. we drift over the sand dunes and beach and through a small village, until we are shown a rather nice half thatch/half cement 2 bedroom house which is essentially what might call a "condo." replete with a living room and bar with 8 stools, fully stocked kitchen and a porch that lacks little but a hammock. the yard is under construction but there are satellite tv's and stone floors.
i ask when we need to pay and fernando says, "whenever."
we walk out to the beach and hike southward, in search of the university research station abdul raved about.
as soon as we are on the beach, various guys stop us and ask if we want to take a tour in their boat and we're like, nah, not really but ok we'll take your number in case.
we continue for a bit of a hike, we walk and walk and walk and i can feel the sunburn sink in, amplified by the terror thought that we are about as far from any restaurant at exactly high noon. 
finally we arrive at the research station, evidenced by a securty guard sleeping in a beached canoe. we enter the natural history museum of jars and preserves of all local beasts and animals and species, all explained by an eager portguese speaking tourguide. the specimens are in the same jars i make my pickles.
far out. 
i understand bits and pieces of his spiel, there was a leper colony, the island is 7km wide, which is the same distance we just walked, this is a 3m long python skin, the scorpion fish is bad news and here are lots of ants.  i ask to for the bathroom and the guide leads me to an outhouse - but first asks me to wait, as he inspects every stall for cobras. there is even a sign, please watch out for forest cobras. this is their home, he says. 
far out.   
at this point we have little desire to walk the 7km back to town and we are starving so we ask the fishermen there if they would take us back to town. they wince and shake their heads, so we call one of the guys who stopped us on the beach, flavio.
flavio says he can pick us up in a jeep or by boat, which do we prefer?
i say i don't know, which is cheaper and he says 1000 meticais either way.
boat or jeep, which do you prefer?
i say whichever costs 800 meticais and flavio says i come in the boat. 
it's low tide so we walk out in the really shallow ankle deep water to the channel's edge. i take pictures and am terrified of dropping my camera in the water, as well as stepping on sea urchins. 
we are almost 1 km from shore and i start to have my doubts about flavio. if the tide comes in we are essentially swimming back and i call him again and he does not answer. i figure, it's either a bad sign, or a good sign, because the boat engine is running and he can't hear the ring?
within seconds i hear the faint roar of an engine, and a speedboat racing towards us. carl says, "there's no way that's flavio's boat, it sounds way too fast," but it is. and we hop in. i complain about the lack of cold beer and flavio says if you had asked for beer i would have brought beer. 
flavio shows us his fancy tour guide id, which is just a laminated business card with rusty staples in it. carl remembers he has the lanyard name tag thing from the workshop. we put flavio's badge in there and i high five him. he is the happiest guy ever. legit. the crystal blue waters bow under our powerful engine and we are at the town in seconds.
far out. 
flavio takes us to some breezy patio where we eat the freshest calamari, doused with many beers. we watch the lazy village life before us, and then search endlessly for a beach but find mangroves, which aren't so bad because that's why we're here, afterall. 
after a sunset swim back at the dock we are discovering cold beer in the condo fridge when fernando finds us to say he needs two people to fill the boat trip to portguese island the next day and because it is split 10 ways it costs almost nothing. ok, why not? 

the best vacations are when you don't have to make decisions, the decisions just come to you. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

international women's day #2

so there's been a bit of a baby boom in yaoundé, a lot of the women i know are all with young kids or on maternity leave. as my housemate, rizbo, new father of a young cute half german baby says "congratulations should be in order for the cameroonian men! these fellas work hard!" fist pump. yeah, maybe. still, women get to celebrate with a vengeance on march 8th.

i actually spent most of my afternoon waiting for my colleague who had invited me over for lunch. he showed up around 4pm, as i should have known. he was sad that i wasn't wearing my special women's day dress! his wife had offered me one the week before, a truly touching gesture, only....well, it was more of a mumu, a giant dome like thing that fell to the floor and got caught under my shoes. so i sheepishly handed it off to my seamstress (you gotta have one in very city), wearing her own elegant, perfectly fitting slender outfit, whistled and said yeah, i can make 10 dresses out of that if you want. and a tote bag. so i was more westernly adorned as we headed off to the edge of town - literally, behind the breezy house stood vast forest covered hills and the view from the porch, sweeping, dusty yaoundé. 4 kids, no water. you have to get it at the well. 
i got bitten by mosquitos and sweated a storm before the main course was served, a nasty looking freshwater fish we had bought on the road the day before, stewed in peanut sauce, which made it delicious. after dinner (630pm) we hit the johnny walker black and boxed wine until we all decided to go back into town for the real festivities. we got stuck in a major traffic jam due to rain, but also seas of people, mostly women, flooding the streets, drunk, pretty, jovial. 
we decided to go to the bar across from my house, and also one of the other guests who was my neighbor. i arrived to high five the owner walter, "hey weren't you here a year ago?" the bar hadn't changed much, except for the addition of a billiard table, which was unfortunately, just about as big as the room as it was placed in. after inventing a new women's day drink consisting of guiness from a bottle, jagermeister, and schmirnoff double black (emphasis on the double black) i challenged my cohorts, button up shirt and tie wearing phDs to some pool. they have never even picked up a cue before. the antics of this game proved hilarious, as i was trying to explain the rules, but also you couldn't take any shot without jamming your stick against the wall, so you would perch it awkwardly vertically and had no chance of htting anything. ridiculous. i finally showed them that we could unscrew the cues into two parts, and then we played on this giant table with what were essentially toothpicks. speaking of toothpicks, i was later challenged by a visitor, a giant man with a golden michael jordan cap and zero facial expression, half open eyelids, with an immobile toothpick between his lips, which would remain unmoved as he suavely smoked his cigarette. he also smoked me in pool in less than 10 minutes, somehow suavely squeezing around the 10cm open perimter around the table -which was unfortunately also on the way to the bathroom, so anyone going to the loo would also have to squuueeeeze through and you would end trying to hold your drink above your head but then spilling it everywhere or touching someone you really didn't want to. the DJ came around with his wirless mic, signing over the nigerian gangsta rap with his own french lyrics, waving his fist at us "les femmes! ouais ouais!". later on, my colleague gaston who was oddly missing, we figured he was stuck in traffic, came in, completely soaked. what happened?
car broke down.
where is your wife??
waiting with the car.
gaston! i smack him on the head. it's women's day! you go wait with the car in the pouring rain and let her get a drink!
the thought had never even crossed his mind...
we continued to play doubles, my guys still not comprehending the rules, moving the balls with their hands when they wanted, playing out of turn, holding the cue backwards. they seemed to enjoy all my double entendres about touching balls and sticks until we segwayed to the sexy move rule, where each player had to jam their butt up against the wall like in a beyoncé video while they took a shot. but that proved too hot for this party. every time someone attempted, the power would go out. pitch black. we waited during a few hopeless tries to get the generator going, but it wasn't enough to fuel both the strobelights and the DJ booth, only one or the other, and that was my cue to leave. cue. hehe. get it?

Saturday, March 7, 2015

road trip cameroon

so before my trip i casually said to my colleague Gaston, over Skype how i've been looking at this forest block for years in a satellite image, but i've never actually seen it, you know? What do you say we go there and do some reconnaissance. sounds good he says, it only takes a day to get there...ah the last time an african told me something is a day away!
i suggested we leave at 6am, always better to be on the early side. at 9:30, i was still waiting. i call gaston "i wanted to print some maps before we go"
i printed a bunch, i brought them to you
"but they are too nice to bring to the field"
he ended up taking 2 hours to re-create the same maps i made -he could have just used my files, but no, he started from scratch, and what's worse, the black and white printer doesn't really convey all the sublte hues of greens and blues. he basically brought a grey map in the form of eastern Cameroon. nice one. 
we finally hit the road with emmanuel, the driver, whom i want to call manu, but he insists: emma. kinda girly but ok. we have congolese music blasting (my buddy fally!) and are in search for supplies. many, many bottles of water, but i really have my eyes set on the fresh baguettes, avocados, peanuts, and pineapples. i could survive on that. every time i see a stand, or someone with what i want on their head emma and gaston say, no, not here, just a bit further. finally we are out of yaoundé and i'm seeing my opportunity fade. i better see some pineapples! don't worry, says emma, we will pick some up in hawaii. 
yup, lo and behold an hour away mountains, and mountains, and mountains of pineapples. 5 for a buck, ladies coming from all sides and throwing them into our car. in the next town i am told, "too late for peanuts," until a guy comes cruising along with a big basket on his head. it's 500 francs for one dented ammunition casing full of peanuts. yesss!
in the next dusty town gaston says it's our last chance for a restaurant. already this town is without power and only one bar of cell phone network. we buy some beef from a guy grilling it over a warm fire. he hands over a slice and a toothpick to taste and we nod, ok, we'll take it. he tears off a piece of dark paper that was formerly a cement bag and wraps it up with some plantains to go. to my dismay the yellow powder he pointed to which i said "yeah, go for it!" is suuuuuuper spicy. the only beverages available to wash it down are 65cl bottles of fanta. 
i ask emma how much further and he says, so it takes 9 hours to get about halfway there, and since we only left at 10, well...he trails off. you're not supposed to ride in the dark so using simple math it seems we have spent a whole day on our voyage but are only 1/3 of the way...
later on the tarmac ends and the road turns into a mars red dust bowl, kicked up by 18 wheelers hauling giant, gargantuan loads of massive tree trunks, meters in diameter, hundreds of years worth of natural, brown wood, spray painted with codes and company names. the trucks keep coming, and coming. 
the front..
and the rear

all the vegetation lining the road is the same bright red, along with all the houses, the kids, their soccer balls. "and this is where the cameroon forest goes!" screams gaston. it's just like the movie i watched on the plane, i can't imagine what it's like inside of these huts with no window panes, with african print curtains as doors. dust probably covering everything. the houses are mostly crooked drab huts, with well appointed gravestones centered in their front yards, presumbaly the patriarch. they are covered with bright clean blue and white tiles and free of red dust, either maintained by their owners, or the goats who sit on them contently, probably enjoying a cool surface. close your windows! we resort to the a/c. our vehicle slowly turns from white to red. the houses that are just a few meters further from the road seem spared, why aren't the houses built further away? or maybe they were here before the road. who knows. every once in a while there is a truck broken down, or worse flipped over in a ditch, spilling its contents into palmy forests, somehow just managing to avoid the villages. except when it's the onion truck, then people are all scurrying to scoop up errant vegetables as we run them over plop plop plop. 

not a scene from interstellar

 we finally arrive to some town that resembles all the others, and check into a hotel, which is really just some relic house way past its heyday with a bunch of guys scurrying around. it was probably grand back in the day, but the picture frames are all dusty and broken and crooked, the oulets hang awkwardly out of holes in the walls and the screen windows look like someone punched their giant fist through them. there's a restaurant, but no one serving food, and the beer is lukewarm. there's a generator though, i delicately plug my computer into a dismembered socket and see sparks fly. there's actually water in the shower, though it's kinda brown. i show gaston how to toss the frisbee and as we are playing i see a fluffy white dog standing delicately atop his dog house, he looks like a polar bear balancing on the last piece of arctic ice. i go over and he wags his tail eagerly. the stench of piss and shit overwhelms me and i hop back from sea of termites and fire ants all around the tree which he is tightly chained to, the leash actually stuck in the ridge of the roof of his house holding him at an awkward angle. his food and water bowls are as dry, flipped over and haven't seen any contents in days. i look closer and notice his nose is basically rotting flesh, covered in flies and bugs, it's almost falling off. this animal is being tortured and he will haunt me for the rest of my life. every time i approach he gets all excited and wants to come and get pet, but i'm worried he has rabies, or maybe flesh eating disease and i'm scared to get close. i toss over some biscuits and he paws them and devours them with a rage. i ask one of the employees sitting under a tree if he ever eats or gets water, and why they are torturing him and i get the usual laugh, haha, white girl, it's just a dog. it's actually the same laugh i got when i asked if they serve breakfast (i was merely pointing at the yellowed sign that read breakfast: 7-10am). at night all the dogs of the village howl together like wolves in a sort of trance and i dream about letting the fluffy boy go. in the morning i make an attempt, his chain is literally drilled into the tree and he's too fucking stupid and affectionate for me to get close without him trying to nuzzle and snuggle his nasty wound towards my waist and i back away with tears in my eyes. i actually hope that he dies quickly and painlessly, though my biscuits ironically probably gave him more days to suffer.    
as we load up the truck we notice it has a flat. the driver replaces the tire and we need to bring the flat one to get fixed. this gives us a chance to go into town and get some coffee, and some nice guys cook up an omelette served with avocados and onions and mayo. gaston asks me if i have food allergies and i say no, and he says, "because the last guy i took out here spent a week on the toilet."
oh, that kind of food allergies! well i have a stomach of steel, mostly. gaston says good, because that meat from yesterday made me quite sick. that's a good sign... 
i am drinking my instant coffee with condensed milk when this man comes by and i'm like, he looks old, yet, young...wow, he's just really small! gaston introduces me to another gaston, a ba'aka pygmie who works for WWF. mini-gaston! i exclaim before i instantly regret it and wince at my words. he asks for a ride to his village and we're all sure, just meet us over there at the truck. he rubs his chin and says, i need to go to the coiffeur, but i will be fast, don't leave without me! 20 minutes later the spare is repaired and we are driving up and down the little main street, calling out, gaston! gaston! and honking. we go to every hairdresser - this town has 400m of a mainstreet and about 20 places to get your haircut. we pull up to every one and emma yells out, hey, have you seen petit gaston? he's really small! little ba'aka guy, can't miss him! and the person would respond, oh, that little man? he was just here but we were full so he went there...finally i say listen guys, we are so behind, sorry but we can't wait for petit gaston anymore and we drive away when suddenly petit gaston comes running, his little legs moving so fast i am making the giddeegiddeegideegidee sound in my head and he jumps in. i forgot a sweater! he says. it's 35 degrees and he ran back to his house to get a wool sweater. 
we continue along, going over a cool river ferry with some fun people who enjoy having their picture taken. we get to gaston's village and yup, it's ba'aka. cool leafy huts and tiny people. some guy comes over from the road and photobombs our session and pretends he's the ba'aka's best friend, but he's actually a gold miner, coming to ask them to take him into the forest. we talk about it later and yeah, everyone comes and exploits the poor ba'aka, known for their excellent forest and hunting skills, while their forests and wildlife disappear... 
we carry on through more villages and smouldering fields which used to be forest, and trucks with logs. we start our work, getting out occasionally to walk into the forest or a field and take some GPS coordinates and photos. we find a place that is selling plantains and he haggle with a bunch of shirtless guys. we go to put it on the roof of the truck and emma lets out a howl. put his back out or something...shit. he can barely walk but he drives us to the nearest clinic - 30km of bumpy roads away. we get to this desolate building and it's all ebola posters, and a few scary ones about genital herpes, and an official price list for operations. 60,000 CFA for a hernia, 80,000 if it's complicated. 
the end is the worst part
i'm thinking they'll give emma a massage or crack his back or something, but no, they give him an injection. the doctor is a young handsome fellow wearing a WWF shirt. i elbow Gaston, joking, turning the tables for once, hey, is the young doctor single? gaston says, "that man has a job, he certainly got captured by a cameroonian woman long ago." i say, winking, polygamy, right? emma winces in pain - i have two wives! gaston nods in dismay "and you have twice the problems, my friend." i later find out that all of emma's 8 kids are from the one wife. the other "does not give birth, she just helps with care." interesting. i think of all the guys who blow me kisses from the side of the road (which i theatrically catch and land on my cheek) they are just losers who only like me because i have a job!
we are soon back on the road, after visiting a chicken coop set up by a peace corps volunteer some 5 years back. they all talk animatedly about her, she was so dynamic! she did wonderful things! i think, now that's a pretty badass legacy to have...will people remember me? 
occasionally pass these police checkpoints, with a gendarme sleeping under a tree, while his wooden board with nails on it stops all cars coming through. they amble over and shake our hand, trade pleasantries with emma. this one guy looks right at me, "ashley's replacement???" you know ashley? she was my neighbor! and he goes on and on...sacrée ashley...
they guys notice i have become quiet, i've stopped saying eeeeeee! every time i see a baby goat or pig, i no longer take pictures of gaston, mouth breathing while cluthing his worn paperback entitled "everything is negotiable in life."
are you sick?? do you need to stop?
no, i'm just thinking...     

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

i cameroun to cameroun

i was invited back to cameroon exactly a year after my first visit. i quickly obtained a visa, reconnected with all the old yaoundé peeps and boarded by air brussels flight on a brisk summer morning in berlin. halfway to belgium, the stewardess who is taking orders for cold easyjet style sandwiches comes over and says "i see you are connecting to cameroon, we'd like to offer you a complimentary drink!" which was welcome, but her tone slightly inflected with pity, was also kinda wierd, innit? 
upon boarding in brussels i noticed my seat was next to some gentleman who locked eyes with me and was luridly patting the space next to him and i oh so smoooothly took an aisle seat a few rows over. a few hours later he sat across from me and even though i twirled my fake wedding ring in my fingers and pointed to my earphones mouthing "i can't hear you" he stared at me like an awkward baby before giving me all 4 of his phone numbers, along with his chicken entree. he grabbed my arm forcefully saying "eat it! eat it! seeing  eat makes me happy!" until i had a steward intervene, as our gentleman's cognac breath reached flammable levels. does this happen to anyone else? during the remaining bumpy ride over the sahara i traded my usual airborne film criteria from "anything with ryan gosling" to "space movies" because i have realized, there's nothing better than actually feeling like you are going through a wormhole with mathew mconaghey. it's the fifth dimension.
in yaoundé (thankfully the first of three stops this plane would be making) i eased through a sortof phone booth with no doors, the sides decorated with cartoons of people puking blood and having ebola. ebola screening! a guy ten feet away held a sort of radar gun like a cop, peered into the screen for a few seconds and gave each individual a thumbs up. i thankfully didn't seen anyone get a thumbs down. i, having also watched a madonna video struck a vogue pose and got double thumbs up. ebola free! for now.
my taxi driver greeted me with a huge sign with my name and hand drawn panda on it, far more appropriate for anti kremlin political demo. he brought us to his yellow corolla with "le saint" sprawled across the back windshield, muppet fur seats which are delightful in 30 degree weather and working front AND back lights! at the exit for the parking lot i was delighted to see that it's the same price from 0-4 hours: 500 francs. my taxi man pleads for a discount with the tollman taking his hands, my brother, my brother...his brother picks the giant sign, which had been forgotten on the roof - ok, i'll take this he says! 
no, no, not the sign!

the guy jams it awkwardly through the window and we peel away as it scrapes my face and blocks my view for the next 20 minutes as i try to maneuver the thing over my head, through the seatbelt...argh! i finally get around to opening my window and breathing in the hot air fresh with smoky forest fires...loud distorted club music and mopeds...yaoundé here i am!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

plum tarts.

Throughout our childhood, my brother and I had the very sweet fortune to be shipped off every summer from Long Island, NY to our homeland in south central France. More precisely, to a tiny village of 20 souls called "La Salle Prunet," named after its sickly looking twisted plum trees which line the narrow alleys and drop rotting fruit all over car hoods. La Salle is five hours from the nearest airport, or, a nine hour grueling drive from Paris in a Renault 4, also known as a “quatrelle.”
view from la rivière
Grandmother, or "Mamé" at the wheel, grandfather, “Pépé,” snoring and overflowing from the headrestless front seat upholstered in a 70s brown plaid. My brother and I in the back with the dog, Chadel (old Patois name). We would leave at the crack of dawn, the car enshrouded in mist and fog, the quatrelle reeking already of old people, dog, motion sickness and the snack staple hard boiled eggs (we never, ever, ever ate at rest stops), all of which would only get worse after our departure.
Back then, and I'm talking more than 20 years ago, the highway was only built until about halfway, somewhere after Clermont-Ferrand where we had the choice to take the longer smoother route, or the shorter, but much more twisty turny way. It was my choice, and I always picked #2, and ended up vomiting somewhere along the Col de Montmirat, over a decrepit stone wall barrier deep into the valley below, with a fabulous view of Les Cevennes, its breeze blowing fresh heather into my tears.
No car radio, no air conditioning, windows that never seemed to slide open enough. The dog would bark wildly at anything resembling a cow and scratch up my legs and spray drool all over. Mamé would smile into the rearview mirror, seeing a cloud of kids and dog hair, anticipating the wonderful two months ahead: July and August full of river swimming and biking and hiking and mountains and french food and friends. This torture was so worth it. It wasn't until someone had the bright idea to drug Chadel could we actually talk to each other and get even more excited about what was to come, as angry truck drivers swerved dangerously to pass us on the mountain bends.
One year, there was a new boy in the village with a wallet chain, doc martins and dark rebel red pants. Some bad kid from the Loire whose parents shipped him to the country to mellow out for the summer. We apparently became boyfriend/girlfriend for a few days, he, like many, allured by my “foreignness.” My brother and I were known throughout the region as “les américains,” fantasy characters they only knew from TV shows like Diff’rent Strokes (Arnold et Willis). Our relationship was punctuated by a ceremony by the river where we counted down from three, breathed in and kissed. It was totally gross, horrifying even. He wanted to symbolize this union by trading something, so we could each carry an object to remind us of the other. I gave him what I had on me, my cool American watch, and he gave me his switchblade, which Mamé later found and freaked out over. The night before he was meant to leave with everyone else known as the "july kids" (you were either July or August, if you weren't lucky enough to have two full months of vacation like me), he smoothly asked for his knife back, because he would need it, and he returned my watch. And there it was, loose ends all tied up, everything as before, the bookends of each summer.
Mamé cooked whatever we wanted, which was more often the pasta mix she was making for Chadel, ground meat cooked in slabs of butter the size of a deck of cards. Upon our return to the states we would get our annual check-up and blood tests, to which our pediatrician’s eyebrows would leap above his eyeglasses and he would scold our parents: “so much cholesterol, in a child! France is not good for their hearts!” Yet, after only a few weeks good ole american sustenance, our blood returned quickly to normal.
It was when the doorbell rang in late august, around lunchtime, you knew it was the end. It was a young local girl, holding a bag of ripe green Reine Claude plums for the "fête des prunes," the annual plum tart fest held in the courtyard of the single room town hall.
Though Mamé never socialized with any of the "vieux ploucs" of the village who spent every evening on the bench near the fountain talking about the weather, tart day was an exception. We would drive to our great aunt's house to pick up this enormous pie tray. I recall it being larger than my wingspan, a low sided metal thing with crinkly sides, always sticky and dusty from last year's use, and barely fit in the trunk of the car. Our tart would not only be the biggest, but the best, and if you didn't already know that it was ours, we made that clear by adorning it with some Americana - a dollar bill or maybe a statue of liberty or a star spangled flag of dough.
Three days before the event, most of the village would gather before the communal oven. Every town has one, a little stone building with a cast iron door head-level above the ground, opening into a cavernous stone space. (Also a classic hiding spot for some to cache their cigarettes during a dog walk). The men made a huge fire inside the oven, opening the door periodically to fan out the ashes, add more wood and wipe sweat from their heads with their forearms.
somethin's cookin'
On the day of the fête Mamé rolled out the dough with a mostly empty bottle of Pastis as we halved the plums. Now here came the crucial moment: anyone who makes plum tarts puts them open side facing down, so you have nice little half plum balls, which you see in every bakery and fancy restaurant around. This might look very nice, but according to Mamé the people who do this are backwards classless yokels. Because all the juice comes out of the plums and makes the dough a soggy mess! no no no. We place our plums up, like the aristocrats we are.
When ready, we paraded our tart proudly and carefully through the village on the way to the oven, handing it like a giant present to the men to cook, making sure it was placed nice and center and not relegated to the edges where it cooks unevenly.
The first year our pie was the only one with upwards facing plums. Over the sounds of the live accordion I heard people commenting on it, in their southern accents, as they held a piece above their heads, studying the crisp and sturdy and dry underside, as the other pie slices drooled through the paper plates. Over the years more and more pies would turn over their plums, I guess you can say we started a revolution.
Mamé has long since passed away, as for the the pie dish, I was told I could pry it from my cousin’s cold dead hands. When I moved to Berlin, my brother - now  professional chef, whose life lessons to me comprise pickling recipes and “don’t wear make-up because it makes you look like a cheap dancer at Le Moulin Rouge” - sent me one of his characteristic French eBay gifts: a nondescript brown package from some weird address I have never heard of. It was a brown metal pie dish, with the low crinkled sides and the bottom part that comes out so it's easy to put on a plate and serve. A replica of our famous tray that actually fits in a conventional oven.
More recently, I met a charming East German man who after a few dates invited me over for dinner. He seemed to connect with my American humour and open to culinary variety. After our first kiss he pressed a little gift into my hand, a cute magnet for my fridge. He had this way of looking deep into my eyes and soul, so I wanted to impress him with dessert. Mamé was the first one to tell me that the way to man's heart is through his stomach. His kitchen being rudimentary, I brought over the pie dish along with some pastry dough I quickly kneaded after work. I sliced up some organic apples, covered them with a simple cinnamon and sugar mixture overlaid with a lattice top geometry that would make Monsieur Eiffel blush. We ended up eating the pie for breakfast (nudge nudge, wink wink) and, still dizzy from his gaze and touch, I forgot the pie dish in the sink with the dirty dishes. In the week that followed, my impulsive, impatient and self deprecating humour went horribly wrong via these newfangled electronic messages, and I seemingly convinced him I was a complete sociopath. To the point where he wouldn’t see or speak to me again, and, well, I probably seemed quite obsessed with a pie dish.
I eagerly hope to be reunited with my dish, so I can date again, bake again, especially next summer’s plum pie. And so I don’t have to tell my brother what happened to his gift and listen to his sarcastic response. While I can always laugh it off as another dating disaster that made my friends at the bar cry into their drinks, what I really long for is those simpler times, where things made sense, and were clear. Things happened for a reason, and there was always an equilibrium status you could gravitate slowly back to, like in a quatrelle. I have this magnet, whereas he has both my pie dish and some of my pride, but I'd still be up for a simple, humble trade, to return to normal, honor my heritage, plums face-up to the sky.