An Emily Abroad

Tales of my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon.

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A Safari

Let’s kick the in-country blogging off with a list-style post! To start with, let me say that my host mother’s house is really unreasonably lovely, and the bathroom is actually super nice. It’s clean, well-lit, and has a toilet! But it’s outside, and that means that the outside comes in. So without further ado, here are the five most interesting animals I’ve found in the bathroom.

6. A Lizard

They’re just kind of everywhere, climbing up the sides of buildings and less formal structures with no respect for the laws of gravity. This lizard in particular was perched near the ceiling of the bathroom and just kind of hung out there, watching me shower. I didn’t mind him and I don’t mind his ilk—they’re generally uninterested in getting involved in the affairs of humans—but it was a little disconcerting to have such an attentive audience as I bathed.

5. A Worm? I think?

Or a small eel of some sort? Maybe a really long, skinny leech? The story is this: the toilet doesn’t flush on its own, so there are buckets of water that one can pour down the bowl to make it flush. In one of these buckets of water is a long, black, skinny entity, moving haphazardly but definitely intentionally across the bottom.

4. A Toad or a Frog (I might be a health volunteer, but I didn’t study biology enough to tell the difference.)

Just kind of hanging out along one wall. It’s two or three inches long, and fairly active, at least when I’m in there making a ruckus. We’re cool, though, I might even give it a name if I see it a few more times.

3. Huge Effing Spider

THREE. INCHES. LONG. I saw it and thought I was looking at a strange clump of wire, because no spider could possibly be that big, but no, three inches long. It was hiding behind one of the boards in the wall at about head height, but I saw it fairly clearly. At first when I tossed some water on it it barely moved, but when I tried to crush it with the toilet brush it finally ran away. It was so huge that its run had a visible cadence to it. It was more of a gallop. AND IT’S STILL OUT THERE SOMEWHERE. (Keep in mind that I was naked throughout this sequence of events. Not pleasant.) (UPDATE: Since writing this we have done battle a second time. I may have vanquished my foe? But he fell where I could not see.)

2. A Menagerie

So flying insects don’t like to be in the rain. And flying insects are attracted to the light. So when it’s dark out and it’s the rainy season in Cameroon and poor, innocent, mild-mannered Emily goes out to use the restroom, the relative dry-ness and bright-ness of the bathroom has already attracted her many companions when she arrives. No two looked the same, so it would actually probably fascinate a biologist to study the biodiversity in such a small space, but I was just hoping that none of them would decide to study my nether-regions as I did my business.

1. A Fish

Yes. A fish. Like the worm, this creature resides in one of the buckets of water used for flushing the toilet. It’s small and could probably sit comfortably on a quarter, but it’s definitely a fish.

I know everyone’s reading this thinking, “Hey, Emily, take a look at number four, it’s probably just a—” No. It’s not a tadpole. I know what tadpoles look like; do not insult my intelligence. This is a fish. How did it get there? I don’t know. I thought that all that water was from the rainwater collection system, but perhaps some of it is from the stream. Regardless: fish.

Now I have nothing against fish. And water used to move human waste from one place to another need not be free of microscopic or macroscopic life. But there’s something utterly unnerving about looking at a sea creature while you’re taking a shit. I’ve yet to decide whether I’m going to flush him down the toilet or introduce him to the worm/eel thing, but I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

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Packing List

In the grand tradition of Peace Corps volunteers going back to the dawn of blogging, I here present my packing list.  I intend, six months or a year into service, to reblog and annotate said list, with updated information on what was and was not useful, and what else (if anything) I should have brought.

In putting together this list, I obsessively googled other people’s packing lists, as well as consulting the Peace Corps Wiki’s suggested list and the Cameroon-specific Peace Corps suggestions.  I was also lucky enough to get packing suggestions from a large group of RPCVs all at once, the only problem being that their suggestions along with everything else made for a pretty long list.  I generally pride myself on being a light packer whatever the situation, but I seem to have met my match.

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To be honest, I didn’t think that leaving my job would be an emotional experience.  Turns out I was kind of naive, thinking that I could spend eleven months with a group of people, all-day, every-day, and not grow attached.  I’m really going to miss everybody.  And even just the physical space where I worked!  It was a nice space.

The thing is, I’m not just tying up loose ends and saying (possibly final) goodbyes here—I’m doing it everywhere.  One set of goodbyes makes me feel sad, but saying goodbye to everyone I know and everything I’ve been familiar with for years leaves me feeling kind of detached.

It’s a good feeling in a way.  There’s a lot of possibility to it.  And I’m excited to go to Philadelphia, meet the people I’ll be working with, and start figuring out who I’m going to know and where I’m going to be for the next two years.  But there’s a lot of nervousness too.  It’s all creeping in…

Filed under University of Michigan melancholy relief Peace Corps Sorry for the boring posts. This is supposed to be a cool blog about the Peace Corps and instead it's just about me being sad about things.

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I’ve been surprised lately by the extent to which knowing that I’m joining the Peace Corps changes my interactions with people, even people who’ve never met me before and never will again.  People being shown around the office never used to be very interested in me, but now I’m a full-fledged stop on the tour—I stand up, shake hands, answer the same three questions everyone seems to ask when they hear you’re joining the Peace Corps, and awkwardly suffer their scrutiny.  A few people I’ve run into who are involved in global human rights activism or development work have sat me down and just talked at me for up to an hour, and I kind of feel like I can’t respond, because really, I’m just the conduit through which they’re talking to my future self.  When I tell someone I’m going to serve in the Peace Corps, they’re very impressed by the person I’ll (hopefully) be in 27 months, and to be honest, she’s starting to intimidate me.

Less than a month from staging, I expected to be either very nervous or very excited, but I’m really not.  I have feelings about my impending departure, of course, but they’re not really on the scale appropriate to 27-month, thousands-of-miles-away, life-changing experiences.  I feel roughly the same as I felt before I moved down to Texas for ten weeks last summer.  And to be honest, I’m kind of fine with that:  on a conscious level, I know that I’m not emotionally or mentally prepared for the challenge of serving in the Peace Corps, but I also know that I can’t be.  I think that the best I can do is to keep in mind how hard it’s going to be, keep in mind that that I have no idea how things will turn out, and try to roll with the punches.  This close to departure, it seems sort of insane—and I wouldn’t use that word if I didn’t mean it literally—to be packing up and heading to Cameroon for 27 months.  I’m starting to wonder if I can even do it.

Which brings me to the point of this post:  I’m really glad that people have been reacting so strangely to me.  In my head, I’m still not fully grasping that I’m going to be gone for two years, and I don’t think that the magnitude of that can fit in my brain.  So people reacting to that, telling me how incredible it is, asking again and again if I’m nervous and warning me about this and that and suggesting development projects and giving advice on how to handle human rights dilemmas, should they arise—this has really helped me come closer to wrapping my head around what I’m about to do.  It’s at least another way for me to think about my upcoming service and to brace myself for the culture shock and the homesickness and the things I’m sure I can’t predict.

Filed under peace corps peace corps cameroon peace corps invitee service homesickness culture shock unknown unknowns future self

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2014-03-26 At the event where I was invited to serve, former PCVs were asked to recommend important items to pack.  These are the notes I took on the back of my program (transcribed below since the image is not high quality).
What to Pack:
comfortable shoes || (tennis shoes)
camera & external hard drive
"everything I brought I didn’t need," need didn’t bring |
see how little you can bring | (you have to carry it)
something for the kitchen
laptop ||
newer underwear w/good elastic
head lamp
musical instruments
pair of jeans |
pictures of your family
duct tape
determination to write (for yourself) | (names in pictures) ||
take care of your electronics
leatherman/swiss army knife
radio that can be recharged by crank
small gifts (decks of cards/other games)
deck of cards
small American change
pillow
only clothes that you really love
sense of humor |
good pair of nail clippers
respect and curiosity
fitted sheets
low expectations

2014-03-26 At the event where I was invited to serve, former PCVs were asked to recommend important items to pack.  These are the notes I took on the back of my program (transcribed below since the image is not high quality).

What to Pack:

  • comfortable shoes || (tennis shoes)
  • camera & external hard drive
  • "everything I brought I didn’t need," need didn’t bring |
  • see how little you can bring | (you have to carry it)
  • something for the kitchen
  • laptop ||
  • newer underwear w/good elastic
  • head lamp
  • musical instruments
  • pair of jeans |
  • pictures of your family
  • duct tape
  • determination to write (for yourself) | (names in pictures) ||
  • take care of your electronics
  • leatherman/swiss army knife
  • radio that can be recharged by crank
  • small gifts (decks of cards/other games)
  • deck of cards
  • small American change
  • pillow
  • only clothes that you really love
  • sense of humor |
  • good pair of nail clippers
  • respect and curiosity
  • fitted sheets
  • low expectations

Filed under peace corps peace corps cameroon packing packing list peace corps packing list