I am writing this post at my friend’s house – my feet covered in tape and lale, a type of natural henna, and wrapped up in plastic bags. This is exactly where I would expect myself to be and exactly what I would expect myself to be doing. It is, after all, August and just a few days away from Eid al-Fitr (known here colloquially as Fete de Ramadan) meaning that there is not much to do besides sit for three hours as the lale dyes your feet beautiful for the celebration. This process is done three times over, on consecutive days to ensure a well-absorbed color. But even more so than that, I expected to be here because I expected a majority of my Peace Corp service to be spent with others, learning about and participating in their cultural practices. What I did not expect about this situation is that I would be wrapped up in a heavy comforter, wishing for a snuggie and some wool socks instead of these plastic bags on my feet. It is cold out and has been raining steadily since this morning. The cold combined with the monotonous drone of the rain drops hitting the tin roofs are enough to make you want to curl up in bed and hibernate until the end of rainy season (when you add fasting for Ramadan into the equation you get one of the least productive months of the year). This bone-chilling cold was something I was not expecting when I moved to Cameroon. I sure know better than to fall for mainstream misconceptions of “Africa” (I put Africa in quotes since referring to Africa in a blanket way, as if it is one analogous whole, is a misconception in itself), like “It’s hot in Africa!” I knew Cameroon would not be like New Jersey in July, at least not all year round, but I was not expecting to need anything more than a cardigan or light jacket to keep comfortable after all, the equator is not too far away. So to my surprise, I am living in a region that gets cold enough to warrant heavy sweatshirts and markets filled with old, donated ski hats and wool socks.
The cold weather is just one of the many unexpected aspects of my service thus far. These unexpected discoveries are numerous enough to fill a novel, so I’ll just elaborate on a few more. I never expected to…
… become a better cook amidst a month of fasting. Many of you know that cooking is not my forte. Before coming to Cameroon, I barely knew the difference between a teaspoon and a tablespoon, how to properly chop an onion or what sauté really meant. However, in a newfound state of self-reliance, I was forced to feel my way around the kitchen. After a couple months, I improved my cooking skill to “passable” and then to an “okay,” but that is where I plateaued… until now. This year, I am fasting for Ramadan meaning that I cannot eat between the hours of 5am and 6:30pm (I modified my fast to allow for some water during the day). As a result, I start to get very hungry around 4:30-5pm, so to satiate myself, I start cooking. While normally, I’d be impatient to eat and therefore not allow things to cook as long as they should (I may have even acquired a taste for not-well done pasta), Ramadan has forced upon me self-control and patience, especially in the kitchen. In addition to cooking for appropriate amounts of time and simmering longer (ah the flavors!), I have also embarked on some more time-consuming and ambitious meals. Some of these include: pizza and Stromboli (homemade dough, sauce and cheese), pita and hummus (homemade pita and hummus made from chickpeas that started dry), tofu and bean tacos, potato-cheese soup with homemade bread and elaborate breakfasts-for-dinner (scrambled eggs, hash browns, pancakes and biscuits). I know for all of you chefs out there, this might not seem like any big feat, but for me, it is leagues away from my buttered pasta start. And that is how I became a better cook while fasting, ironically so.
… become an early bird. That’s right, folks, I am officially a morning person, at least in Cameroon. I love to sleep and in the United States, if I didn’t have a commitment, I could (and sometimes world) sleep until noon. I was never one of those people who could wake up after eight hours or who would wake up without feeling drowsy. Even on those sleep-in days, I would wake up groggy. However, in Cameroon, it is quite the opposite. I’ll wake up by 5:30-6am and feel wide-awake. Even if I don’t set an alarm, I’ll still wake up by 7am. Now granted, I do go to bed much earlier than I did in the states, but still, I’m not inclined to sleep much past those needed hours. Especially with a work schedule that is flexible and mostly self-dictated, I did not expect to want, nonetheless feel good about, waking up early in the morning. (Note to parents: this does not guarantee early-rising once back in the states. Do not get your hopes up.)
… paint my nails consistently during Peace Corps service. This last one is a bit trivial, but it is quite indicative of a lot of Peace Corps Volunteers’ expectations before service and the realities that they discover. I cannot tell you how many volunteers (I cringe to admit, even myself) brought cargo pants to this country. Cargo pants, hiking boots, water purifying tablets, solar chargers, etc. are among some of the packed items that make new Peace Corps Volunteers seem like intrepid explorers, or at least some very prepared campers. These items are very useful when we go camping or travel in Cameroon, but not so much needed in our villages. If we showed up to our villages dressed in our cargo pants and sprayed with big repellent, we’d be sight to be seen, especially next to the impeccably dressed women in their pagne ensembles sprayed with a perfume they probably picked up in market the week before. You see, life in “Africa” isn’t some hardship excursion into the wild; there is a normalcy about it. And that is why I even though I did not anticipate painting my nails every week, I continue to do so.
While all of these things and more were never expected, I have certainly welcomed them… well, maybe not the cold.
[Another thing I didn’t expect: to neglect this blog. More posts coming in the next couple of weeks! In the meantime, feel free to check out photos- http://www.flickr.com/photos/samanthammcl/sets/]