Monday, January 21, 2013

Paperwork and Pedagogy (and another petit problème)


While in Douala, I was staying with my friends and hosts, Evan and Lisa. They both teach at the American School of Douala. Evan is a science teacher, working with grades 6 through 10 (9th pictured below), and Lisa is an ELL teacher, working with all grades (8th pictured below). After months of relatively aimless traveling, it was good to have a chance to get a different type of intellectual stimulation and think about teaching again. 

Mr. Murphy teachin' SCIENCE. I got to wear some of his teacher clothes (tie, of course)
Ms. Penor at work with the francophones

"Thinking about teaching", however, only involved a small amount of me actually teaching in the class, although I did do some of that. Mostly, it was Evan and me talking for hours about science (Why do the tropics have two seasons at all? What exactly causes hot air to "rise"? How does solar radiation actually cause things to heat up? Where can we find enough invertebrates for a dozen sixth graders?), and me helping with a lot of the non-teaching things that Evan has on his plate besides planning for 5 different classes every day. One day that was designing new lab tables, one it was trying to figure out what materials one needs in a Chemistry classroom, and one day it was cleaning and taking inventory of the materials he already has:

mm... Pringles
The fun part about being sent to an American School on the other side of the world, is you end up with a collection of whatever past teachers have gathered and discarded, all without the full amount of regulation or oversight that one would see in a school in the states. If I was lucky, the bottles were sealed and labeled. Sometimes, labeled but not quite sealed:

...I'm sure that cap was like that before...
Sometimes, not labeled OR sealed...

Taste test, anyone?
Thankfully, Evan also had three rubber gloves in his inventory (not three pairs), so I was able to wear one of them while working, saving two for emergencies later. For any of you worried about my safety while riding a motorcycle around Africa, rest safe knowing that the more miles I put under my wheels, the further I will be from this cabinet.


The other reason for staying in Douala for a few days was to prepare for that motorcycle trip. I was lucky to find a bike within the first week of being in town, but that was only the first small step in getting ready to take it through several African countries. On top of the receipt of sale, vehicle registration and license plate (for which I'm still waiting), I need insurance (done), a drivers license (eh...), a carnet de passage (kind of like a passport for the bike. I need the registration before I can apply for that) and visas (one down, one to go).

Vroom vroom! At least it's paved here
Sick of waiting and itching to get out of the city, I decided to test my paperwork (mostly a collection of receipts at this point) and head to Yaounde for a few days to apply for my Gabon visa. I had been told that there were several checkpoints on the way where I would have to show my paperwork, but they didn't seem to care about motorbikes. Instead, they pulled over taxis and buses and trucks all around me and waved me on through. The only stop I needed to make was to grab some oil and some delicious Mbongo at a roadside stand.

Mbongo with bushmeat (they called it "antelope") and some starchy roots

Le petit  problème

After the ride to Yaounde, I found that my back wheel was a bit loose (no biggie, right?). Rather than risk the ride back to Douala, I made my third mechanic stop of the trip. Not exactly what I hoped my first week with the bike to look like, but that's how it goes. $8 and a couple hours later, I left with a solid bike and a little more confidence in the melee that is African city traffic.

Wah wah... luckily, it's not $80/hr for labor here

Unfortunately, I didn't take many pictures in Yaounde, so you'll just have to imagine the relentless mosquitos without a bed net (but with plenty of malaria prophylaxis), the simplicity of a 6hr visa from the Embassy of Gabon (most visas take days to weeks to process), water polo and bbq with French EU workers (I am constantly jealous of, thankful for and embarrassed by other nation's linguistic education, especially while I can barely follow a conversation in French, which I studied for 5 years), and trying to keep up with my couchsurfing host, Manu, and his 650cc Honda on my 150cc Lifan (while dodging taxis, motos and pedestrians). I did, however, take this picture on the ride back:


Paperwork encore 

Now that I'm back in Douala with visa in hand, I still have to wait for a few more documents before I can leave for good. I am planning on heading off for a week or two in Cameroon once I get everything but the carnet, so I at least won't be stuck in a crowded city for the entirety of my visa duration. Adventures await!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Culture shock

Sunrise over Africa
(at least) Eight months, six different countries, two major regions of the world. Alone.

These were the requirements of the Bonderman fellowship. The idea being, in part, that you're gone for a while, see some different things, get thrown out of your comfort zone and rely on yourself the whole time. So far I've been gone over six months, been to 10 different countries (China, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Morocco, Senegal and Cameroon), I've been mostly alone the whole time, and now that I've entered Cameroon, I'm into the second of my two official "major regions" (a vague concept in itself), Central Africa.

Everyone asks about my impressions of this area, so here are a few about Africa in general:


This is the first impression that's been on my mind. Traveling alone requires a level of trust. There's the trust in oneself and one's abilities to survivie or even thrive in new, strange and difficult circumstances. There's a trust in one's immune system that the lukewarm street-meat-wich you just ate won't haunt you later (it didn't), and there's also a necessary trust of others around you, even when they're not always trustworthy.

The producer of my questionable sandwich.
In Central Asia, I found it fairly easy to trust most of the locals I met. I would willingly hop into strangers' cars, accept invitations to raucous birthday parties (while limiting my own raucousness), sleep on the floors of people I'd met just hours before on the street, and eat their food. This trust was partly due to my being in the region for several months and starting to get a feel for the culture, partly due to the general decrease in corruption and relative lack of tourist predation in this area, and quite likely partly due to some blissful ignorance on my part.

Waiting for the local transport (kind of like Jeepneys in the Philippines)
Africa has been a different story. I don't mean to say that Africans are, as a rule, untrustworthy. In fact, I can think of a few who are the opposite. This is a common perception, however. Before arriving in Africa, I'd heard stories and read in the guidebook about all of the different cons and scams that Moroccans or Senegalese or Cameroonians could, and likely would, pull on you. Once I arrived, I watched many Moroccans and Senegalese and Cameroonians pull these exact tricks on me and other foreigners nearby.

neighborhood street in Dakar

The problem isn't the con men themselves, as I'd expected to encounter them and even derived an odd bit of pleasure from seeing through their scams and continuing on unscathed. The problem is the effect that they, and the fear of them as promoted through guidebooks and traveler lore, have on my psyche. Instead of taking the invitation to come in for tea and plov, I'm instantly suspicious of any friendly-looking face and watching my back as I sip the tea. This leads to a much more stressful existence.

Thankfully, as I said, not everyone is like this. For instance, CouchSurfing introduced me to Ouzin, my Senegalese host in Dakar. He took me all around town, introduced me to his friends and family, who in turn introduced me to various home-cooked traditional Senegalese meals (all delicious, by the way),. he spoke little to no English, forcing me to practice my incredibly rusty French, and in general provided a comfortable, interesting experience during my short stay in Dakar.

Ouzin next to some old French cannons

Here in Cameroon, my host and friend Evan introduced me to a co-worker, Michael, who knows about motorcycles. Michael has been helping me shop for bikes and answer some of my Cameroon-motorcycling questions. Although I'm still wary of trusting him fully, it's been invaluable in finding a decent bike in a reasonable amount of time in a new place

The key has been connections. With Ouzin, it was Couchsurfing. With Michael, it was a mutual trusted friend. When I'm off on my own again riding through Central Africa, we'll see what kinds of trust and hospitality I find


Whereas most Central Asians are imprinted with the Soviet mentality of not smiling unless it's absolutely necessary or warranted, you don't see many people beaming on the streets. In Africa, however, and especially Senegal and Cameroon so far, smiles, laughs and humor seem to be the currency that keeps life moving. Getting scammed? Joke with the scammer and he'll leave you alone! Salesman overcharging you? Give him a laugh and the price drops! It's quite refreshing, actually...

Ouzin's uncle jammin'


My first comment to Evan when I got off the plane in Douala and it was 80 degrees: "It's pretty hot for 5am, eh?" Very different from the frigid steppe of Central Asian in December.

Cooling off in the tree chair in Dakar

Cooling off in the Atlantic Ocean

Near the westernmost point in Africa


No more plov, no more Shorpa, no more Mante, (although they still have Shawarmas). Now there are all sorts of spicy meaty sauces over rice or with Cassava. Delicious. Best of all - still no sickness since China!


kind of like oatmeal with yogurt, but sweeter, and eaten communally. Sugar counts as a spice

Making tea. They make it super strong and carmelize the tons of sugar they add to it.


In Central Asia, politics is a bit of a non-issue. Despite being "democracies", most of those republics have had the same president for decades. Cameroon is a bit the same, but Senegal had some clear excitement and uncertainty in their election system - as evidenced by these eloquent political statements

Wade was the last president

He was voted out last year

Memorial to the end of slavery on l'Isle de Goree

The African Renaissance Monument in Dakar. It's taller than the Statue of Liberty.