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Cory Ballantyne says It's not a five-star accommodation, but it's home
Cory Ballantyne says It's not a five-star accommodation, but it's home
It's not a five-star accommodation, but it's home
SPECIAL TOTHE VINDICATOR
I meandered in the right direction looking for a familiar house until I settled on one and surveyed it.
Yes, it seemed to be the same house I had briefly seen under construction six weeks ago ... but pink and peach? Gag me.
Of course I knew that pastel color paints on concrete are the norm for exterior walls in Cameroon, but I was kind of hoping for blue or green, not a house that looked like petrified cotton candy.
The interior walls and trim, I noticed later, are yellow, peach or cream, fuschia, burgundy, and navy blue, in various combinations.
The house is the only one in its compound — a compound is some small number of houses and a small courtyard all surrounded by a high wall — and the gate was padlocked.
The house had one security feature that checked with what I remembered distinctly from my previous site visit: The large shards of broken beer bottles embedded in the top of the wall, jutting skyward. (Cheap, available everywhere, and presumably very uninviting to burglars.) Like all buildings in Cameroon, the house also has bars on the windows.
To enter this fortress, all I could guess to do was to go next door.
"Hi, I'm the new Volontaire du Corps de la Paix. (Peace Corps volunteer) I'm not sure, but I think that's my house. Do you know where I get the keys?"
The landlord, Monsieur Kuate, speaks less English than I do French, but he was very friendly and helpful.
A Peace Corps staff member waited to make sure that I got the keys and that my stuff was unloaded, but then I found myself with no means to boil water, nothing to sleep on, nothing even somewhat clean to wear to work, nothing to wash clothes with, and about an hour of daylight left.
The next morning, I had to open a bank account, which took several hours. I have electricity and running water, but because the water in Bertoua stops working for about half of each day, on average, I couldn't have water reliably until I got some big buckets to keep filled.
The nice thing about storing water in buckets is that the mud settles to the bottom and you can get water that's cleaner than tap water by skimming it off the top.
To boil water, I would need a working stove and pots. In Cameroon, you assemble your own stove setup from a portable stove (burners), a piece of tubing, a connector, and a portable bottle of propane gas.
I guess it's like setting up an American backyard grill. It took a few days to gather all the parts. The one pot I already had was too small to provide water fast enough because water has to cool before filtering or else it will crack the filter, and there was no clean place to cool it except in the pot.
One day I decided to filter the water I had boiled eggs in although I expected I would filter out bits of egg and have to clean them out before they rotted. It would save me from having to buy more water before I could get a second pot.
Buying water nibbles at my vacation money. (I'm stubborn enough that I will aim to tour Africa on only my Peace Corps salary even if I'm the first one in history to do it.) So I filtered the egg water, and I dumped the last part back out of the filter to flush out any egg. I looked in: no egg. Great.
A couple days later, my water started smelling a little funkier than usual. At first, I figured it was within the normal range. By a day or two later, I dismantled the filter and soaked the pieces in bleach water for a day while my new (and bigger) pot of water cooled. Meanwhile, what to sleep on? I spent one night on a sheet on the floor before I got a mattress. For one night, the coolness of the concrete made up for the obvious, since eastern Cameroon is hotter than the western part of the country, where we trained, and I wasn't used to the heat yet.
The next day, although I was definitely getting a mattress, I saved it for an afternoon project. Why? Because in Cameroon, "Tout est discutable," as they say — everything is negotiable — and I decided to teach myself how to bargain first by practicing on small things.
Better to get ripped off buying a used shirt than a mattress. So I bought school clothes all morning, fell asleep or something for the middle of the day, and finally (barely) hauled myself back out to get dinner and a mattress before dark.
My mattress is a twin-sized slab of yellow foam. It would be perfect by itself except for this weird thing my floor does. I never noticed it before, but concrete absorbs water. Then the water creeps up and leaves a wet spot under any object anywhere on the concrete. So I've started propping my mattress against the wall during the day, and we'll see if that keeps it dry.
In the midst of my frenzy of crucial shopping, I had to prepare to look presentable some time soon so I could go around meeting local politicians — they expect it — and show up at my school to check for miscellaneous important information.
I started with no nice outfits, no clean socks, no suitable shoes, no iron, two pieces of soap about the size and thickness of quarters, no buckets, and no clothesline or hangers.
First I bought clothes. The only place you get clothes in a hurry in Cameroon is at the second-hand fripperie stalls, unless you want to pay a premium for overnight tailor service.
Mission at the fripperies: To procure clothes that (a) are professional, (b) fit, (c) are in good condition or can reasonably be mended, (d) don't conflict too much with your personal taste, (e) the vendor will sell for an acceptable price.
I can get a few good pieces in a few hours. And if they don't add up to an outfit (e.g., shirts only), then for now, assia — which is Cameroonian for, "Sorry, pal, but you're out of luck."
Buying almost anything in Cameroon is a chore. When you want something and you're not in the mood to bargain, you wait for some other day to get it.
Eager to sell
Go to browse, and the instant your eyes fall on something, the vendor is eager to help you. That reaction is probably reserved for the handful of white people who pass because Cameroonians imagine that all white people are wealthy.
And about every five minutes that I am in public in Bertoua, someone yells "wasara!" or sometimes "wat!," meaning "white" in local languages.
I usually ride my bike when I go into town. In Bertoua, about 90 percent of the vehicles on the road are moto taxis. They tend to give me almost equal space and respect on the road.
There are probably fewer than five bikes in the whole city of Bertoua. (Bertoua is probably the size of Austintown from Cornersburg to Wal-Mart, but more densely populated.)
When I take my bike anywhere, I lock it up any time I get off. It's a nuisance but it's Peace Corps property, and if anything happens to it, I'll have to pay for it. Street lamp posts are good bike stands. Finally, when I've spent a few hours on my bike or at the marché, (market), I often come home drenched with sweat and take a cool shower and a nap.
When I couldn't seem to find appropriate socks after a while, I started the washing process after all. Hand-wash, wring, hang to dry. But in humid Bertoua, clothes will not dry except in direct sunlight.
My landlord built me a great clothes-drying rack. The problem is that clothes dried outdoors must then be ironed to kill mango fly larvae. These would burrow under your skin and cause elephantiasis, a disorder of the lymphatic system.
Learning where to get food took a little time, but it isn't actually difficult. The biggest challenge has been overcoming laziness or tiredness enough to get dinner ingredients into the house before dark.
The dusk deadline is one thing that's pretty non-negotiable. It's when the market closes and you shut yourself inside to avoid motor vehicle accidents, mosquitoes, and — ahem — other predators.
But at dawn, once again all I have to worry about is the roosters, the noisy dwarf goats whose bleatings sound like babies screaming, the neighbors talking, their TVs and radios blaring, and the swarms of very small children who will shout, "Good morning!" every time they spot me from morning until dusk.