There are times during the day where I find my brain composing something, linking sentences, detailing upon some mundane task while the rest of my body carries on with some other chore, telling a story to a contained audience: me. It’s not to say that the inner storyteller and the other inner audience don’t clash from time to time. Strange, I know, but alas, I tend to feel with my audience and lead with my storyteller and when the two started communicating with one another this post practically wrote itself.
Over the past two years I have done my best to be open with you; to capture all aspects of my life here, the happy and the sad. My service has been punctuated with moments of euphoric highs and decimating lows. Normal for Peace Corps volunteers around the world. Yet, of the threads that have connected my service from beginning to end there is one that I have kept hidden from you.
So here I am, nibbling (read: inhaling) my sardine and mustard sandwich and thinking to myself, “that was @#!&-ing crazy.” My good friend, Sarah, and I had just survived a three odd hour hike through some of the craziest terrain I had ever ventured through. Allow me to explain.
The two of us, in the bliss that is crossing off items from our Cameroon bucket-list, decided that we simply had to visit the well-known (“ ”) crater lakes of the country’s Southwest region. It’s normal to want to undertake these types of adventures one’s last three months of service and Sarah and I were more than willing to take a long weekend to see a part of the country neither of us had experienced. Work has wrapped up, our flights back to the states are already booked…it’s time to travel!
Our journey began in the town of Bafang, Sarah’s post, in the West region. We caught a bus moving southbound to the Littoral, the dejected region of my first 5 months of service, where we met our guide in a town called Melong. He was two hours late but didn’t seem overly pressed for time. Seeing our sporty physiques and game-faces, he ventured that our hike would take no more than two hours. I’ve used this blog as a platform to say this many times: assuming always makes somebody look like an ass. In this case I’m not sure who won the namesake.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so remote in my life,” I thought to myself as I sat in the front seat of the pick-up truck carrying us to our start point.
It felt as if a cheer squad had strapped a snorkel mask to my face and fired me out of a human slingshot into the jungle; vines, branches, and the general green foliage of the rainforest pounded up against the windshield and rolled off as we pushed forward. After prying a prehistoric looking locust off of my nose I took a second to glance behind. There the two girls I was traveling with were perched fending off a barrage of whipping lianas and thorny branches.
“That sucks,” I thought, spreading out into the empty seat next to me.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m as gentlemanly as the next putz. It was the chicks, however, who wanted to prove their toughness and adventurism. So they had climbed into the bed of the truck and sat back for what they had assumed would be a scenic ride into the jungle. Ha. If you’ve been following this blog at all you know where assuming has gotten me. More so, I never leave a cushioned seat un-sat on.
It seems far too often that I am sitting down in front of my computer to consul myself through my writing; yet, more bad news from Cameroon.
I received notification today that my host mother, Christine, passed away. For three months while I was training, this woman was like my mother. She opened up her doors to me, she fed me, she gave me a place to sleep, and she treated me like her son. For three months we talked together, we laughed together, and we lived together. Three months may not seem like enough time to have an impact on a person but I have found that it is more than adequate. A person’s hands can reach out and leave an imprint on our lives in far less a measure of time.
On March 1st, 2013, I was evacuated from my Cameroonian village because of the threat of Boko Haram. The militant Islamist group had kidnapped a French family in a neighboring region the week before. Because my village of Gaschiga was located only 10km away from the Nigerian border, the Peace Corps decided that I could either transfer to another post or end my service and return to the states.
The following two posts, Things Fall Apart and We Were Always Together, capture one of the most transformational experiences not just of my Peace Corps service, but of my life.
At first, the prospect of raising chickens was something that excited me in ways I usually reserve for my private life. The irresistible thought of having edible pets intrigued me to the point of purchasing four, well-established chicks back in November. But now, as I am sitting, 86 days later, teary eyed, sipping an overpriced Heineken and listening to OneRepublic’s “It’s Too Late to Apologize” at 10:47am in the morning, I am filled with guilt.
“Why?” you ask. Well, allow me to start from the beginning.
To say that I chose to raise chickens in order to create some cost-benefit prototype that would be super-imposable in the form of a microloan to some villager in Gaschiga would be only the quasi-truth. Honestly, I came into Peace Corps wanting to raise either chickens or goats. Given the cards the universe dealt me, poultry it was. So, I set out, my own agenda coupled with my volunteerism, and purchased four lovely chicks. Expecting everything to go to plan, I looked forward to consuming all of the chickens, once grown. Not that I would be killing them myself. That’s something that past and future vegetarian-Shane would never be able to live with. Gifting the chickens to friends, having them slaughter and prepare the chickens, and then eating them together seemed to fit my moral code just fine. But, as is life, things did not go to plan.
Every now and again I like to do these little social experiments. Gotta keep things interesting, right? My latest stunt – wearing a traditional Cameroonian bubu on my travels home. Just to clarify, a boubou is basically a pair of pajama pants worn with a mid-calf length dress, same color, mine happened to be baby blue. Topped off with a checkered scarf and leather shoes. Super chic.
There were two reasons why I decided to put on this outfit before embarking on my long trek to Pennsylvania. Number one, they are the most comfortable clothes I own, not to mention that they look way nicer than most of my “western” clothes. Hand washing and intense sunshine have not been kind to my cotton apparel. Reason number two, on the other hand, is a bit more philosophical. Hear me out.
I wanted to see what the dynamic would be like if I traveled from Africa, a place where I stand out racially but attempt to fit in with the clothes I wear, to America, a place where I am among more white people, but where I would be stylistically alone in my Cameroonian boubou. In short? I wanted to toy with people’s comfort levels and, I guess, start rattling their cultural perceptions and tampering with the racial spectrum of “black” and “white”. What was I visualizing? People coping with their confusion by spontaneously launching themselves into a flash mob performance of Whitney Houston’s “It’s not Right but it’s Okay.” Ahem…
There is little question about it – my 28 months in Peace Corps will be defined by my cross-cultural teaching and learning experiences; moments where I get a live a unique aspect of Cameroonian culture and moments where I get to share a piece of my American culture. However fascinating shared cross-cultural moments can be, I am finding that it is the pieces of culture that translate comprehensively across oceans, horizons, and political boundaries that intrigue me most.
You know them: the moments that make you forget where you are in the world, that challenge your perceived understanding of place, make you do a double-take of your surroundings: cultural crossings.
A church service. The room is lofty, the air, a bit stuffy – slightly damp, the result of a morning rain shower. Passionate words, warm with the voice of a soft-spoken, lively pastor, slice through the otherwise hushed room like a knife. I ignore him – not out of ignorance or incomprehension – I simply want to allow my other senses to grasp at my surroundings. Alas, I am not the only one day-dreaming.