Travelogue Pt. 1


Hello everyone, it’s been a while right? Well, Monique of Musings has been blessed to be awarded a Chevening Scholarship. YAY! J
This prestigious scholarship will sponsor those selected to study for a one year masters degree in the UK at any university of their choice. In my case, I’ll be studying for an M.A in Education, Gender and International Development at the Institute of Education, London.
This opportunity has of course streamed my musings to flow in a new direction. Without further ado; welcome to this pioneer travelogue edition of Musings.\\
Here are my random thoughts on the journey and the experiences so far.
Superstition and the Traveler
It is a tacit (though sometimes explicitly stated) norm in African communities in general and our Cameroon in particular that one does not tell people they are traveling. Oh, you may tell all your colleagues you are headed to Bamenda for a wedding, but you do not and I repeat do not tell them if you won the Green Card Lottery.
Yes, we are that superstitious that afraid. But more, the travelers’ superstition exposes the inferiority complex we pretend we don’t have. You see we would readily tell people we are to travel to Botswana, Nigeria, Ghana “and them” but a trip to S.A? No. You just go and call home later.  Let me break it down for the foreigners reading this. The purpose of your traveling abroad (also known as bushfalling) and the step by step details ought to be guarded as covetously as one guards the due date of their first baby. Like telling people the baby’s name before birth is considered a taboo in some other cultures, telling someone you may not be sure of (which would be everyone who has not invested in your progress so far) that you plan to take off to Germany on the 16th of August could open your child, err correction- visa, to evil forces beyond your control./
 A Green Card to the USA? That means you are leaving for good? Heck no. You’ll post pictures in a month or two and they’ll know you’re now a Bushfaller as simple as that. The former countries are mushrooms in our eyes, just a step up from going to Saddle Hill Ranch/Resort Bamenda or spending a weekend on Kribi Beach; we might not even need a visa to get in. But the latter countries have been given 1st class status we don’t want to risk the visa for which we suffered degradation at the embassy to receive. It occurred to me recently with the disappearing of planes, that if a plane was to go missing with ones cousin on it, no one would be searching, because no one would know that cousin had gotten a visa to “fall Bush”. 
You see the more important the milestone the less information you give about it. Its subject to questioning, to unwanted attention, to threats of failure even to loss of life (as dramatic as that is) so we keep mute and bury the secret in our hearts much like the child in the womb who will remain nameless no matter how wanted because the world isn’t ready to know it yet, and its parents are willing to risk it.

The World- A Global Village
18 years ago I travelled internationally for my first time. I was a scrawny little girl with badly shaven head because of the ringworm. I wore jean overalls to look as American as possible in lieu of arrival. On the plane- Air France, I was offered Ranch Salad, Escargot A.K.A snails cooked in lemon juice and of course cheese and crackers. Imagine a child raised up on Fufu and Eru, Gari and Okro, and the occasional dish of Rice and Stew. That was me.
Of course I rejected everything offered to me, and the kind hostesses appeased me by giving me more than my fill of those short cans of soda pop… but that’s another story. Flash forward to present day. This journey should have been the same; it was still a foreign airline- Brussels.
But it was not. Our menu consisted of halves of White Yams (albeit stupidly cooked with butter) and fried plantains a.k.a Dodo with chicken stew. I couldn’t help but turn my head this way and that to see if the few Caucasians aboard the flight reacted in with the same distaste that I had when  I was presented with “their kind of food” all those years ago.
This is what they mean by the world becoming a global village and what a friend of mine refers to as the revenge of the colonies…

Culture Shock
One of the questions I was asked during my interview was how I would cope if given the opportunity? I was told that many experienced culture shock and it could make it difficult and a struggle for them to perform their best out of the familiar. Prepared for that question; I answered reflexively: I would adapt just fine, it certainly won’t be the first foreign country I’ve been in, and I find myself very capable of “doing like the Romans do”. I certainly would not break down because I saw people driving on the wrong side of the road or because I’m being teased for enunciating the “W” in Greenwich. I knew this as fact and it is truth.
However what I didn’t figure while responding was that while I may not break down or even experience that much of a “shock” some of the little things, silly things would piss me off which ultimately boils down to “culture shock”.
In this way I have experienced that culture shock is not all that “shocking”. It entails the expression on your face at seeing several people carting around kids who can walk aged five to seven in strollers as though they couldn’t. Culture shock includes the pout face you made in the bathroom because scooping water out of a bucket with your hands while scrubbing yourself down remains in your opinion the fastest and most effective way to bathe daily, but the tub won’t allow you the liberty (Isn’t it funny, the kind of things you miss?).Culture shock lies how easy it is to exist without knowing your neighbors name. Unless a package comes to you in their absence there would never be a reason to make introductions, unlike back home when the landlord/lady would probably present your brief bio to the other tenants as you move in.
Then there is the varying definition of needs. Now here I’ll admit it, I’m shocked. I’m shocked that a smartphone is a necessity and not a luxury. Unless you want to get missing, you NEED Google Map. To get Google Map you NEED to have a smartphone Period. Yes there are other luxuries in the phone, people don’t need Candy Crush and co. but in a country where phone basics like alarm clocks and flashlights have been converted into a software app and sold the smart phone people obsess about is not a status symbol we look at it back home, it’s actually a need. You may be cut off from your bank account; your child may be unable to find their way home without one.
So when you hear that your brother just bought his 14 year old son a Samsung S3 don’t think “And he is complaining that he cannot help me pay for my own child’s school fees” he didn’t get the phone by choice. Actually maybe he chose not to buy the expensive iphone or more recent S5 in comparison.

The Things We Take for Granted make a point of telling people there are advantages to underdevelopment which they seem to readily overlook. In my opinion the majority of the things which cause stress in this country stem from being developed to the capitalist max. The average Cameroonian can leave the house 5 minutes before they are due to arrive somewhere. Why? Because there are taxis rotating non-stop on the road. And if you want to go out of town, the buses are always there at the park loading and “clandos” those private cars turned money making machines as well. That is a privilege I have come to appreciate more. In fact I would now willingly join taxi men in striking against any injustice done to them. Those people are the greatest civil servants. Imagine having to book in advance any time you may have to go down to Limbe from Buea or Kumba from Mutengene? And imagine the prices changing within the day from 5000 FRS between 6 and 10am then the more “sane” 2000frs for the brief “off peak” period between 10am and 11am.
Our system may be cruder, we may not have the sophistication of computerized stations, but God blessed Cameroon with a system that fits its people.
Learning the London Tube map (map of the underground railway system) is in a way more taxing than mastering the periodic timetable ever was in Form Three. The other day I literally did a victory dance (mixture of Bamileke “bendsikin” and Hillsongs’ Choir waving hands) all the while grinning like an emoticon just because I made it on my own for the first time. london_tube.gif

A typical day maneuvering between one place and the other in London would include taking the closest tube (let’s say Jubilee line) making sure you find the right platform, then stop somewhere half way switch to another train line, maybe DLR- make sure you’re going in the right direction again, then stop half way and come out of the Underground station altogether, watch your network signal resurrect on your phone then look  for a bus stop with your bus number to take you to your final destination. Going out has never been so complicated.  
Another thing we take for granted back at home (apart from the cheapness and availability of African dishes our siblings in the diasporas pay crazy prices for) is the pleasure and relative security of face to face sales and transactions. With nearly everything from grocery shopping to house hunting done online I’ve formed the opinion that Westerners trust more that Africans do. Contrary to the stereotype they put themselves out there a lot more than the typical Cameroon we ever can. I can’t see my landlady back home leasing out an apartment without haven met the would-be tenant in person and asking decidedly pointed question. Imagine then looking for a room in a flat full of strangers and paying for it online with only select pictures posted online as evidence that it exists? Doesn’t that speak of blind trust?
The typical Cameroonian, I grew up with women going to the market and walking along the sheds of fruit sellers weighing watermelons in hand and tapping them for that sound that tells of inner depth. Buying something without haven seen/touched it is unimaginable yet the everyday reality here. Perhaps this is another bit of culture shock, but I believe it speaks of the contradiction in our stereotypes. Africans are presumed to be more communal, familiar with one another yet the Cameroonians back home won’t buy something they haven’t seen, felt or debated price on; “Man know man” or not, we just can’t trust that much.
Here’s a little story to illustrate this: After unsuccessfully looking for a room to rent online for days, a new acquaintance asked me if I was homophobic. I answered no without delay.
 “Okay” he continued, “There’s a colleague of mine who has an available room in his flat for rent, but he’s gay” his speech rushes now as though to present all the points before I can cut him off.
 “You know gay guys are extremely neat and have taste so you won’t have a problem sharing space and a bathroom unlike with some other Oyibos, and the room is cheap too, within your price range and in the Zone Two area”
I’m smiling now, even though I had already told him I’m not homophobic he feels he needs to persuade me to see the pros above what he considers is a con- that my roommate would be gay. However my older Cameroonian companion was not smiling on hearing this.
“Are you even considering it? No! No! You can’t rent with a homosexual. Do you know what you are saying?”
 I imagine this is the same reaction most of my family members back home would have. 
What they fail to see however, is that all the while that I was looking at rooms online with descriptions such as “double bedroom, five-minute walk from bus stop with buses going to London Central, broadband included” etc. none of those descriptions stated whether those I would share a flat with are gay, HIV positive, have Syphilis or suffer from depression. I was willing to secure those rooms sight unseen not knowing what kind of work flatmates do, whether they had criminal records, drug addictions or where just plain nasty. So why should knowing up front that a would-be flatmate is gay bother me? At least I’m going in informed right?

Different yet the Same
There is a stereotype back home of the West; that this is the closest place to paradise. The stereotype is so entrenched in us that the story goes a pastor once preached about paradise saying “There will be no hunger in that place, no suffering and people shall eat and have more left over” and one of the Sunday school children spoke up “Like America na?”
To quote Chimamanda “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but rather that they are incomplete”. They don’t tell the whole truth and the omissions make them akin to lies. That Sunday school child would be surprised to have seen the beggar trailing after people on High Street, Woolwich who reminded me a lot of those along Commercial Ave. Bamenda.
And those who buy the stereotypes of Africa being the land of pop-up churches and preachers calling for salvation on the road side would have stood slack mouthed watching the group passing flyers at Woolwich  Central and shouting “This is the day of Salvation, Come worship the King!”
We are different yet the same the world over.
In fact with the population of Africans here you may thing you’d never left home. It didn’t surprise me that there are African spots, which predominantly cater to African immigrants. Serving dishes from home, where one can find a bottle of liquid Maggi on the table. But it did surprise me when to hear the strains of PSquare’s “Personally” playing from the speakers in the Student lounge of my conservative Institute of Education. I’m sure there is a Nigerian manning DJ station. It would not surprise me given the fact that I’ve heard as much Igbo and Yoruba in the last few days to feel like I’ve gone visiting in Lagos again.
It is of course comforting. For instance while scrutinizing my tube map for the umpteenth time. My face must have registered my newness because a Nigerian brother just walked up to me, accent still intact, asked me if I needed help and proceeded to direct me to the right  platform. It felt good hearing “waka fine” again. Especially as I’ve been saying “Ashia” reflexively and failing to be understood.

The Golden rule of Traveling
We Africans have often been admonished for not sharing what knowledge we have with our own so I ‘m sharing this one piece of advice I have come to see as vital.
Thou shall not convert the money in the new country to home currency.
“Madea voice” Don’t do it, do not do it, you just might die.
Now I’m struggling to take this advice to heart myself so don’t judge me.
You see this is what the early traveler a.k.a Johnny-Just-Come does; s/he would see the cost of a pair of panty hose at boots and think: Eight pounds? That’s like six thousand francs for this! Something I’ll wear once? Hell no!
I repeat, DO NOT convert or you WILL develop hypertension and die. Forget what the current exchange rate is. Exchange rates are theory, pure theory. If they were factual you won’t be spending at least 10 pounds on transport to school a day (and that’s on a good day)
Best thing for you to do is understand that forty (40) pounds is equivalent to fourteen (14) thousand francs Cfa in what I call “Real Usage”.
Just like 14.000 francs Cfa and 14.000 Naira are the same in “Real Usage” forget the fact that when converted 14.000 Naira is almost a whopping 50.000 francs. Forget the currency rate. Calculate in terms of “Real Usage”

And now I’ll leave you with another bit of knowledge.  If you have the drive, ambition and focus to further your studies in the UK and return home in a year, please do apply for the Chevening Scholarship, find out how here:
Time is running out. And you lose nothing by trying
Till next time! XOXO

Watch out for Travelogue Pt. 2

No comments:

Powered by Blogger.