Sunday, January 25, 2009

The North, Part II - Christmas in Garoua

January 17, 2009

After spending a couple days in Tourningal in the Adamaoua, Genevieve and I headed back to Ngoundéré and then took a bush taxi to Garoua, the capital of the North Province. Garoua is supposed to be the hottest city in Cameroon. It is surrounded by mountains that trap in the heat and humidity. But there was not much heat and no humidity. We heard it was "winter," but knowing that the Adamaoua has a much more temperate climate, we were worried about what the North province had in store for us. We were told that as the bush taxi winds down the road off of the Adamaoua plateau, you can feel the temperature rising. We did feel the temperature go up slightly, but it wasn’t that big of a deal. What caught our eye were the Hermitan winds that bring the "winter" weather, or at least proof of their existence in the form of dust. It didn’t gust or feel that windy. It was just dusty. Visibility was probably around a half of a mile creating an eerie feeling and not allowing us to see the landscape around us.

While it wasn’t hot outside, it did get quite hot in the bush taxi. The majority of the people in the taxi were already used to extreme heat and they preferred it over the dust, so the windows stayed closed for most of the four and a half hour trip to Garoua. Thirty people crammed into a small bus with no circulation was not exactly pleasant, but we eventually made it. Angie and Stephanie met us at the agency and we went for dinner at a place around the corner that had fresh fruit smoothies.

Our time in the North ended up being an interesting mix between touristy, cultural stuff and American time. There were two reasons for this. One is that there are four Peace Corps volunteers in Garoua and lots more in the surrounding area, most of them from our training group. The second is that it was Christmas time. Christmas is one of those holidays where you want to be reminded of home and your own traditions, and being surrounded by Muslim culture, we stuck together a lot.

We arrived on December 23rd, so the way that we were introduced to most of Garoua, the fourth largest city in Cameroon, was in buying things from markets and boutiques to get ready for our own celebrations. On Christmas Eve, about 15 volunteers got together at Angie’s house for a great dinner. We had bruschetta, two chickens, vegetarian chili, mashed potatoes, carrots, and pumpkin pie (actually squash pie) for dessert. Dinner was served under the stars by candlelight with Christmas music playing from a collection of people’s iPods as we ate on a huge straw mat. It was a great ambiance. Then, Christmas day, everyone went to Stephanie’s house. The crowd grew even more as there were probably 30 volunteers at the party. Stephanie actually lives in a primary school. It’s a little surreal, but worked quite well for the party. There were plenty of chairs and tables (even if they were meant for people one third our size) and there was space for everything that she had planned. One room was set aside for Christmas movies, another was for board games, and there was even an area for crafts where people decorated a Christmas tree taped to the wall and cut snowflakes. The food was once again amazing - a potluck with green bean casserole, cheesy spinach dip, hummus and homemade crackers, salad, mashed potatoes, rice and vegetables, Christmas cookies, pumpkin pie, and a lot more that I can’t even remember. We even had a white elephant gift exchange later on in the evening. Because we had partied well into the night on Christmas Eve, this day ended up being a lot more laid back.
Christmas Eve Dinner

The day after Christmas we headed into the Grand Marché so that I could buy a boubou (pronounced boo-boo), the traditional men’s clothing in the Grand North. I can see them occasionally worn in the South, even by non-muslims, but it’s not as common and I had never worn one. For anyone that doesn’t know what a boubou is, it’s a pair of loose-fitting pants with a loose-fitting top that goes down a little below the knees. The top is embroidered around the neck and sometimes other places. One of the reasons I wanted to buy a boubou was because I had brought mostly shorts and t-shirts readying myself for the heat not realizing that they weren’t really acceptable in the stricter traditional standards of the North. But the main reason was just for the experience. When in Rome, right? When we got to the market we found two long rows of tailors making and selling nothing but boubous. It was quite a sight. Not knowing at all what a good price was but having acquired a love of haggling, I spent a long time going up and down the aisles talking to each shop. I finally got to the point where I found a boubou that I liked and told the man in the shop how much I wanted to pay. He had to call the owner who, he told me, was coming right away. I took the fact that he had to call the owner to mean that I was asking for a really good price. During the time I was waiting for the owner to show up, though, I found someone else that was trying to convince me not to buy one pre-made, that he wanted to make my boubou himself. I would be able to pick out the fabric, it would be tailored to my size, he could have it ready by the next morning, and … he could do it cheaper. Though a little bit skeptical, I agreed. It turns out he was a genuinely nice guy and a great businessman. He took me on his motorcycle to two different fabric shops to pick out exactly what I wanted, got me a good deal, and kept his word by having it ready first thing the next morning. It was dark green, almost exactly like the one I was about to buy except I was able to have the embroidery done better because I had saved so much money on the fabric. All that and at two thirds the price! Genevieve ordered something at the same time as me and he’s already picked up orders from at least three other Peace Corps volunteers. He does a great job and his good service is already paying dividends. If you’re ever in Garoua I’m pretty sure his shop is number GI-47 at the corner of the market.

The experience of wearing the boubou is another story all its own. I was amazed at all the respect and attention that people gave me. It was partly because they were proud that a foreigner was embracing their culture, but also because of the importance of appearance and what it represents as far as your social standing. People everywhere were calling me El Hadji which is a title for someone that has made the trek to Mecca. They probably knew that I had never been to Mecca; it was just a way of showing respect. Some people called me El Hadji Nasara. Nasara means white man in Fulfuldé, and while it’s often heard chanted from little kids or done just to solicit a reaction from you, this was very respectful. One of the days that I wore my boubou we all went to Lagdo, a town about 45 minutes outside of Garoua. I remember on one of the legs of the journey, as we were cramming seven people into an economy size car, it was insisted that El Hadji Nasara sit in the front. That is the seat reserved for the most important person. I usually don’t even like sitting there. They fit two people into that one front passenger seat. I would rather be one of the four people they squeeze into the back three seats. Three fourths of a seat is better than one half, right? But this time, the other person that was next to me in front was giving me as much space as humanly possible. He was like an acrobat almost on top of the stick shift giving me pretty much the whole seat to myself. While I felt uncomfortable having people go out of their way for me and judging me solely on the way I was dressed, it was an insightful experience into not just northern but Cameroonian culture. While I don’t necessarily like or agree with the practice, I can definitely see how if I had grown up here, every day I would dress to impress and not for comfort. I remember hearing in our training over a year and a half ago that people will wear the best clothes they have and take pains to keep up their appearance. I saw that it was true, but now I have an even better understanding of why.

The Lagdo trip that I had the VIP treatment for was pretty amazing. In the middle of this desert climate is a town profiting from a hydro-electric dam that creates a lake and some pretty incredible scenery. When we arrived we went straight to the dam. On one side is the lake and nearby hills extending right to the waters edge. On the other, hundreds of feet below, the river continues through a trail of fertile, green earth among the rest of the dry region. At the bottom is also a home for a few hippos that we could see lounging in the water and the afternoon sun. They were pretty far down and all we could see were the tops of their heads poking out of the water, but after seeing one yawn it brought back the reality of what we were seeing. His enormous head hinged open at least ninety degrees. After the dam, we went to have a drink at the Blue Lagoon, a small resort on the waters edge. The serenity of the resort with groups of small huts and buildings scattered on the hillside overlooking the lake made it the perfect place to sit down and soak up the scenery. We took our time, took a few pictures, and then headed back to Garoua.
The lake at the top of the dam

Hippos at the bottom

View from the Blue Lagoon

At the Blue Lagoon (the boubou has an affect on Americans too)

Once back in Garoua, we got a good night sleep, woke up early, and took the first bush taxi of the day into the Extreme North…


*Don’t forget to check out the photos I just added to the last post.

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