So after all this talk of me “leaving soon” I have finally left and I have finally made it to the great country of Cameroon in the great continent of Africa on the great planet of Earth. Let me just say, it is a different world here. While I am staying at one of the fanciest hotels in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, it is still very much obvious that I’m not in Kansas anymore (well, New York). So far, I have learned how to bucket bathe, properly wave, and live without things like Google at my fingertips. I have also made 50+ new friends. All in a week’s work, they say…right?
I began my voyage on Wednesday, September 19th. I said goodbye to my mother and sister at the airport and flew into the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia, PA, to meet my new family. I met three other Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) at the airport, identifying them by their huge backpacks and overflowing luggage. We then shuttled to a hotel in West Philadelphia (“born and raised; on a playground is where I spent most of my days…”) and arrived with barely enough time to grab lunch before staging, or orientation, began. I was worried that staging would be a long, boring lecture about missions and goals, but it was actually very engaging. I found the résumés of some of my fellow trainees to be quite intimidating; many of them have several degrees and vast work experience. They all had a lot to say and a lot to contribute to our conversation about anxieties and aspirations. It was a time for reflection on the process leading up to initiation as official PCTs, and it was interesting learning why everyone was there and what they wanted to get out of the experience.
A completely incomplete list of my anxieties and aspirations:
-The giant rat (apparently it can detect tuberculosis, which I guess is a redeeming quality)
-Not getting along with my host family
-Riding an elephant or other large animal. Seriously.
-Paying it forward and helping others do the same
-Learning a lot from my host family
-Forming a strong network of friends
Meeting my roommate for our one night in Philly made me feel better about feeling sad to leave. We shared similar sentiments about leaving our friends and family behind and starting fresh in a very new and very different place. In short, we were scared, but staging and finally putting faces to names from a Peace Corps Facebook group made us feel more relaxed. That night, I went with a few other PCTs to the TGI Friday’s across the street, where we celebrated our last night in the U.S by eating a lot of American food, of course.
The next two days felt like one REALLY LONG DAY. We left the hotel at 10am and traveled by bus to JFK Airport, where we spent an hour trying to make sure our bags were not overweight (the airline employee said my bag was “a bit heavy” but let it pass, phew). We then boarded our first plane to Brussels, only after consuming some more American food and calling our friends and family for what felt like the last time. Our flight to Yaoundé via Douala was even longer, and by the time we arrived and made it through customs, we all were eager to be done traveling. Our three host Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) ushered us to the hotel, through dinner, and sent us to bed. Saturday, the 22nd, we filled out paperwork (in blue ink, as black is not allowed for some unknown reason), and waited anxiously to be called for our language proficiency interviews (LPIs). At least, I was pretty anxious. My French conversation is très mal, so I found myself taking long pauses as my interviewer kept glancing at the tape recorder. I was later placed in the novice-mid level, which is the second lowest level and exactly where I thought I would be! Still, I am confident that I will be able to learn enough French to reach intermediate-high, if not intermediate-mid before the end of pre-service training (PST). The past few days have been spent bonding, relaxing, enjoying the hot showers, resenting the two-day long water outage that resulted in bucket-bathing, and meeting various trainers and other people involved with the Peace Corps in Cameroon. We went to a music and dance show featuring the Cameroonian wife of the Associate Country Director, who is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV); had dinner at the Country Director’s house with the U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon and a representative from the Cameroonian Ministry of Health, among other esteemed guests; and took a trip to the police station, where we were photographed, measured, and fingerprinted for our country ID cards. We were not allowed to smile for that last one.
Tomorrow, I will part ways with many of my fellow trainees, as Health Education trainees will be living and training in Bokito, and only occasionally meeting with the rest of the group, which will be staying in Bafia. At the end of November, each of us will be separated and posted in one of Cameroon’s ten regions. With Cameroon being the size of California, I hope that it will not be too difficult to visit one another and meet current PCVs. As a health volunteer, I will likely be in a very rural area (just learned this yesterday) in one of six regions (can’t remember which) and doing work in at least one of four issue areas (we won’t know until we’ve settled into and assessed our community). I am hoping to have a postmate, or another PCV so that we can support each other and relate to each other because of our common culture. I guess I will have to find out!
It is funny how you can know people for only a week and they already feel like family. Bonding is an understatement. We have shared a lot about ourselves in the past week and I already feel more cultured about my own country by meeting new people from across the U.S. Some PCTs in my stage hail from towns very close to my own, which has been an exciting talking point. I am sad to leave many of them already, but I know that we will see everyone again and help each other in ways that we have not yet discovered. If anything, this Thanksgiving will be the highest-attended Thanksgiving that I have ever taken part in. For now, I have to prepare for my host family immersion in Bokito, which should be interesting. And by interesting, I mean incredibly awkward. I learned today that children are the best teachers because they are unafraid to tell you what you are doing wrong, so I am hoping to have a young brother or sister who will point out my incorrect French. We will see!