Adventure Shopping

I love open air markets, and even ones that are not so open air. The main streets surrounding the central market here are full of shops and people selling old clothes, new clothes, kitchen-ware and electronics, all within easy view of the passing taxis and congested traffic.

However, going into the market itself means getting out of the taxi and descending into the labyrinth. Off of the main streets, there are a dozen narrow, twisting alley-ways covered with makeshift plastic roofing that leaks when it rains. These pedestrian only channels feed into the mass of shops: hairdressers, fabric stores, tailors, vegetable stands, plastics, knickknacks, and who knows what else! I have yet to make an extensive exploration of each section (although I do want to); I’m usually just happy to come in the same place I did last time and to find my way out.

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Would you go in?

Although it sounds intense, it is actually much more manageable than most markets in Cameroon. The vendors are respectful, and although they will call out to you to convince you to come into their shop, I have never felt unsafe.

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So many treasures!

The entrance my friends and I took involves a ramp sloping sharply downwards and passing by a set of old concrete stairs where women selling vegetables sit with their goods under the staircase. I wanted to get a picture, but the entrance is congested and people here are very sensitive about having their picture taken. Alas for the photo journal, but I think you get the idea.

The best part of the market for me is the fabrics. Although some Westerners may view African fabrics as a visual assault with the vibrant colors and busy patterns, I absolutely love them and enjoy picking out the perfect fabric for my next idea or project.

Here it is common to have fixed prices per meter (sans white-man inflation): 1000 francs (about 2 US dollars) for the cheap quality fabric, 2000 francs for the better stuff. Negotiation can happen, but it’s rare to find people who will deviate from those prices unless you’re buying a lot at once.

I was wanting a variety of fabrics to cover throw pillows on my couch. Although nothing is sewn yet, I like the combination of the various fabrics and finding cohesion through the very lack of it, a pattern in a chaotic jumble (life metaphor, anyone?).

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All in all, the market is a great lesson in adventure shopping, and seeing all the colors and patterns always brightens up my day.

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On Creativity and Home Improvement

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything. I thought that a year in Cameroon would have loosened my pen and that the words would jump onto the page of their own accord. The opposite was true. Living in a developing country for the first time was overwhelming. There was so much to take in, I found that I could barely process all the events myself, much less write about them.

I was searching for the big picture, but I ended up only seeing the minutiae, the details that weave themselves into my subconscious until they no longer stand out. Perhaps the big picture will come after years of experience, or maybe it won’t. Until that point, better to describe the small things, and then—perhaps—we can arrive at the larger whole.

I’m still learning, but a couple of things have changed. I’m in a different central African country, one I think is a better fit for me in a lot of ways. I’ve also had some time and space to process, recovering from the cultural whiplash of living in three countries last year and four this year. Two were repeats (so five countries in two years), but it isn’t something I would recommend.

So now I’m trying a new thing: settling. It’s an odd word to me, perhaps because I haven’t done it in so long, but I’ve moved in to a new place and am learning how to make a house a home.

It’s not always easy. In Cameroon I was spoiled, having a housing department to prepare a furnished apartment with a fridge, stove, electricity and running water. Here, apartments are rarely furnished, and tenets are responsible for figuring out their own water and electricity. Thankfully, I had help from my team in installing a water tank outside to collect rainwater. Although we’ve had one storm since I got here, I am praying for more rain so that my tank can fill up. [Update: it rained all night last night and we got more than 12 inches of rain. My tank is now almost full!] It’s amazing how much water we use every day: washing our dishes, ourselves, cooking, cleaning, drinking, and even flushing the toilet. Here, we learn how to conserve.

Working on a house here requires a good measure of creativity. Like using string in a crisscross pattern to hang a shower curtain, since curtain rods aren’t sold in stores. Or running extension cords from your one outlet by the front door through the wall to your kitchen, so that your fridge can be plugged in until a more permanent electricity solution is found.

Or being Kelly Moore for a day, mixing your own paint colors. Here, paint chips are rare, but white paint and dye are fairly cheap, and you can see a plethora of bright colors on the buildings throughout the city. To paint my house, my friend and I experimented with blue and yellow dye. (Everything I know I learned in kindergarten: Primary Color Paint Mixing 101!) I was looking for a seafoam green for the main room and a sunshiny yellow for the kitchen. For the green, we undertook the process scientifically, measuring drops and determining the perfect ratio for a nice pale green (a 3:1 yellow to blue ratio, in case you’re curious). For the yellow, I just dumped the remaining dye in the paint and hoped for the best. They both turned out great, and I enjoyed the process a lot more than choosing from paint chips and not having it meet expectations.

Bottom line: life is so different here, and some things may even seem unbelievable to people back home. But this constant state of disequilibrium keeps me open, open to new ideas, people, and experiences. In the West we think of creativity as something artistic, to be used in leisure time. Here, creativity helps us all get by in day to day life. A house is formed not only with cement, but with ideas, creating solutions to problems.

Villablino

In January I had the privilege of traveling to Spain to teach a linguistics course in Villablino, León. I lived in Granada for one year while I was studying Spanish in university, and being in Spain felt like being home again. Nevertheless, Northern Spain has a very different culture from the South.

Villablino is a smaller mining town, nestled in the mountains and practically forgotten except by those who know it’s there. Skiing is the main attraction for outsiders; there are no must-see historic sites or ancient cathedrals. When I was there I couldn’t even find a postcard.

Yes dismissing the town would be a mistake. It’s a special mix of city and country; there are about four main streets with plenty of shops and stores, but it’s easy to wander out of the town and into the hills. Stone walls guard horses and donkeys, but I’ve seen sheep wandering freely on a deserted hillside road. A stork nests on top of the stone bell tower of a church. A particularly warm year, winter was an interesting mix of damp rainy days, warm sunshine, and heavy snowfall. The fate of backyard gardens would look grim if it were not for the hearty kale plants growing everywhere, their thick leaves a splash of green peeking out from under the snow.

When I was in university, I learned that Spain was home to four languages: Spanish, Catalan, Basque and Galician. The reality is far more complex with obscure little Romance languages scattered throughout the Northern mountains, isolation and time creating a perfect recipe for linguistic variation. The Laciana valley (where Villablino is located) is home to a language called Pachueso. Essentially moribund (linguistic speak for “practically dead”), there are next to no native speakers, only those who attempt to keep it alive through classes, public readings, songs, and conversations. It is sometimes sprinkled into the Spanish here in surprising ways. The majority of the cafés in Villablino have their open/closed signs in Pachueso instead of Spanish. My upstairs neighbor speaks it, and I had the privilege of listening to him read a story in the language. The story had a particularly rustic theme; it was about a boy who got chased up a tree by a wild boar and ended up arriving home late at night and being locked out. When my neighbor read the story, it seemed similar to Spanish, but not quite intelligible. It sounded as old as the mountains, a forgotten language that rolled off his tongue like water from a hidden spring.

Although the weather was unpredictable, it was generally cold and I was grateful for our heating system in the apartment. We had a coal stove. That’s right. Coal. Since Villablino is a mining town, coal is a relatively cheap resource and has been used to heat houses in the Laciana valley for years. It takes some maintenance. Hauling coal from the basement to the apartment in buckets every couple of days, scraping the grate from below daily so that it wouldn’t get clogged with ashes, emptying the fallen ashes once a week, and—if the fire happened to die—restarting it with newspaper and wood before adding more coal. It was labor-intensive, but I liked it. I felt like I was taking part of a tradition far more interesting and rich than simply pushing a button on a thermostat.

It’s hard to say exactly what makes Spain feel like home to me. I have lived abroad in other places for just as long or longer without having the same feeling. And despite having never been to Villablino and knowing no one before arriving, it still felt like home right away.

I discovered that I really enjoyed teaching linguistics in Spanish. It was a small class, but the students were eager to learn. I taught an introductory grammar course, covering the basics of morphology and syntax. The best part for me was investing in the students and seeing them grow in their linguistic skills. At the beginning of the course they did not know what morphemes were, and by the end they were writing grammar descriptions. These are students who are interested in serving across the world in linguistics, literacy and Bible translation. It will be exciting to see where they end up. I like thinking about how God brings people together for a certain time or season and then scatters them across the world. Yet the connection and the impact everyone has had on each other remain.

It was an intense time, as it was my first time teaching my own class. There was a steep learning curve for preparing materials and exercises, outlining lesson plans, writing and grading exams, and balancing all of that with day-to-day life. I taught three hours a day, five days a week, and did all my prep work and grading in the afternoons and evenings. Add processing everything in my second language to the mix, and it’s no wonder I was tired at the end of the day. But at no point during the course was I so stressed that I regretted coming, and although I was exhausted after several weeks of this rhythm, I always felt like it was worth the effort. I lit up when I got to explain complex ideas or when I tried to show how beautiful language could be. It was a great fit, and I hope to be back.

And now my life seems full of contrasts. There was snow on the ground when I left, but now I am sticky from the humidity in Cameroon. I felt so comfortable and confident in Spanish, and now I am speaking halting French, trying to remember the syllables that have become rusty from disuse. There are more transitions down the road, but I will enjoy the bright moments and thank God for His provision and His dreams for me, far better than what I could think up on my own.

Salty Seascapes

I love this picture, mainly because I can smell it.

Although your nose would pick up on the traces of salty humidity before you saw it, if you were to wander the sandy path through the trees, you would come across an incredible view of the Pacific Ocean.

The California coast often surprises people who tend to think of it as a sandy strip full of bikini clad sunbathers. That image may prove true in the South, but give me the wild, rocky shores of Northern California any day, with cliffs that tumble down into the sea, with cypresses and ice plants that cling to the rock face and grow through the strangest cracks and crevices, with sea lions, otters, and the relentless pounding of the surf under a misty grey sky of an overcast morning.

I also love the Pacific for the particular smells around the area. The smell of the sea has been often described, but the cypresses change the character of the experience. Piney sweet and almost citrusy, they freshen up old coves full of dead water and filter the mist through their needled fingers. There is another scent—I have yet to figure out what kind of plant it is—that I will forever associate with the ocean, probably because I have yet to smell it anywhere else. It is sweet and spicy, almost like maple syrup or cinnamon, and deeply aromatic. It is pervasive along paths like this, a sort of incense welcoming royalty back into their kingdom.

The Northern California coast is a kingdom I yearn for. While I can see the picture and describe the scent, it is not the same as breathing in the cool air myself, my lungs growing stronger with the thick blend of oxygen, salt water, pine and aromatic herbs.

The other reason I love this picture (which I realize on its own may be nothing special) is that the ocean is not pictured, but I know it’s there. That is where the path leads; you must take my word for it. It is no good pretending otherwise because once you are there, it is impossible to do so. The evidence is all around you, the crashing waves filling your ears and the rich perfume of the Pacific filling your nostrils and lingering with every breath you inhale. Yet still the ocean hides from sight, a majestic but shy beauty. The sounds and smells are foreplay. But round the bend and let your eyes feast on what your other senses knew all along. The vast enormity of the sea stretches out like an untold tale, waiting for an adventurer, a wayfarer, a storyteller.

As evening fades away

It’s five o’clock in Yaoundé, and it’s my favorite time of day.

About a good hour and a half before true dusk, the sun is low in the sky with bright beams slanting through the city and picking up bursts of color. I see the bright fuchsia flowers which I cannot name, the red dirt from the road, the green grass, the yellow and blue of nearby houses which have become stunning.

There is a strong, refreshing breeze that plays with my skirt and rustles the leaves overhead. The heat of the day is past and Cameroonians are making their way home.

As I walk down the path from the office, I take note of the small birds that swoop in front of me and an orange and black lizard and scurries away from my footsteps. I walk out the gate and down the path, marveling at the colors. I pass a vegetable stand on my left: I see bright yellows, reds, and greens, the colors of the Cameroonian flag, and incidentally the colors of bananas, tomatoes, and unripe papaya. Chickens scuttle across the road, unperturbed by motives for their crossing.

I think about the work I am doing. I spent most of the afternoon compiling a report for a linguistics book I read in hopes that it will be useful to the people at the Literacy Department. We are working on developing a curriculum for children to be taught in their mother tongues rather than exclusively English or French, languages they may or may not speak. My job involves researching how to best implement grammar instruction for African languages into a mother tongue curriculum. Although researching does not always seem glamorous, I like to remind myself that I am reading in pursuit of knowledge. There is wisdom in words, direction and guidance from ages past to address our concerns today. What could be a more worthy task than this?

I come down to the main road and turn right. There are still streams of taxis, but they seem less harried than this morning. People in brightly colored garb walk slowly on both sides of the street. On the right, there are yellow, orange, pink, and turquoise foulard headscarves for sale. One the left, several men kick back after a long Monday with a beer, drunk straight from the bottle on a shaded terrace.

I turn left on another side street and pass the small stores with a hodge-podge of items to sell, children wandering in small groups, two women sewing pillows shut, an abandoned building, and a man selling beaded jewelry.

There is no power when I arrive home and the light and colors begin to fade. Everything in seasons. The sun will rise and sink slowly down again tomorrow, highlighting the hills, plunging corners of the city into shadow. Whether or not I can see them, the colors remain.

The Violence of Spring

I originally wrote this one month ago when we had snow flurries on Easter.

We talk about spring as if it were a gentle season–all warmth and sunshine, sweet showers and flowers blooming everywhere. But spring is strong–not gentle. We never seem to focus on the violence of spring, the epic battle taking place with windy storms, snow flurries and wildly fluctuating temperatures as spring attempts to usurp winter and wrest from his icy claws the dominance over the length of our days and the warmth of our nights. No, spring is not gentle. If it consistently puts an end to the tyranny of winter’s reign, then spring is the strongest of them all.

Music on the Page

I appreciate music in a way that extends beyond a symphony or concert. For me, each language has its own specific music, made up of a unique rhythm, different sounds, cadence and intonation. It is the music of a language that allows us to identify languages we hear but don’t speak; we know the people at the next table over in the restaurant are speaking Spanish, Russian or Mandarin, even if we don’t recognize the words.

I love learning things by ear, whether it be languages or music, because I feel like there is something that clicks when I can hear it in my head. Reading, on the other hand, is often more visual than auditory. However, this is not always the case.

A few months ago, I read Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. If genius could be contained between two covers, I think I found it. The characters leapt off the page as the plot wound its way through hundreds of pages in a mere three days. A three day timeline in which we can live our whole lives. Aside from it being a brilliantly crafted novel, I think one aspect that I particularly enjoyed was the dialogue. The book takes place in Spain, and although one  character is American, he speaks fluent Spanish with the other characters. Although the book is written in English, Hemingway gives the dialogue a Spanish flavor by taking common expressions from Spanish and translating them literally. This gives a somewhat awkward drift to the dialogue, but allows it to flow in a different way, a way that works perfectly in another language. Thus, the reader feels as if they are reading in Spanish when they are actually reading in English. The melodies of two languages blend together.

My other music-moment came reading a French play called Ruy Blas by Victor Hugo. It was the first full length book I’ve read in French that I actually enjoyed. The plot was daring and bold–a lackey in love with the queen! Revenge, intrigue, l’amour…the characters were complex and it was amazing to follow them through their trials and triumphs. But what I really loved was the language–written in Alexandrain (12 syllables per verse) with rhyming couplets, I could hear the music of the language, the sonority, the cadence and rhythms. I could hear it, even though it was written down. Reading a play such as Ruy Blas instead of a novel was easier for me because the form and structure were just as much a part of the beauty of the work as the words that were chosen. But now I am encouraged to start reading more in French; an entire body of literature has become just a little more accessible.

Looking at the written word abstractly, we see squiggles on page. Yet with each stroke of the keys, there is a sound attached to the letters, meaning linked to the words, syncopated, staccato or legato. Sometimes we read banalities; words are cheap and silence is golden.

Other times the melody breaks through the fog and we hear the beginnings of a symphony.

The Things We Carry

When I was younger I was enchanted with the idea of having a personal library. I would frequent used book stores, hunting for the perfect prize for my collection. I amassed several bookcases of tomes, mostly novels, and was content to whittle the hours away reading and writing.

University slowed my pleasure-reading habits to a crawl, as there was always something else to be doing that was seemingly more important. While my reading faltered, my book collecting did not. I picked up books here and there, convinced I would read them later. My shelves grew, and dust collected.

I gradually became cognizant of the fact that I was becoming more in love with possessing books than reading them. I would read the occasional story and set it proudly on the shelf like a trophy. My bookshelves were not just furniture; they were an extension of myself, my tastes and interests displayed for the world to see.

Then I moved away and left my books behind.

And somehow, strangely enough, I began to read again. I found the English section in the public library, and a small international library with books in hundreds of languages. In the cold winter months, I had a break from classes and more time on my hands than usual. The words kept me company and I flipped through story after story.

I discovered Hemingway, which is quite possibly the start of a long, literary love affair. I’ve read two of his books and am starting a third, all of them borrowed. None will sit on my shelf at the end of the day as a physical reminder of what I’ve read.

But I own them. Not in the sense of property, but I own these stories because they have moved me and stayed with me even though weeks have passed since I closed the covers. In reading them once, I’ve placed them forever where age and mildew cannot touch their pages.

And now I realize I would rather own few books and read many instead of owning many books and reading few.

The sickness of ownership extends far beyond books. When I was in Santa Cruz, California, I walked along the famous West Cliff Drive. Stunning ocean views and multi-million dollar houses. People pay big to own their little view of the beach. And while I may not have access to that view every day like the West Cliff-ites, there is a path that wends its way along the street where anyone can look out over the water. I love the Pacific and I love Santa Cruz. I have a piece of it, not in deed or on paper, but as a part of me.

I am surprised at North American culture’s obsession about ownership, as if owning something is a prerequisite to enjoying it. If something is not our private property, the sharing somehow sullies the wonder of the object in question. The problem is that the focus is shifted and we no longer care about what we are owning so long as it is ours.

But there is a freedom in letting something pass through our fingers. Because who can take away what we don’t really have? Or perhaps more accurately, we have hidden what we love, cached it away in a secret place where it remains and where no one can take it away.

This year has been a process of losing all my repères, my landmarks, my points of reference. God has been stripping away everything I used to depend on so that all that remains is Himself. And I am beginning to realize afresh and all over again that His presence is the only constant in my life.

The truth is when I feel adrift, He is unchanging. My emotional state has no impact on His holiness. And His presence is something that can never be taken away from me. It is through this lens that I realize I am richest through what I do not actually own. And what I cannot possess paradoxically becomes mine in a way that is not physical, but no less real; always there, ever-present, and packed safely away in the things we carry.

Threshold

I think it is impossible to learn another language without being completely changed. Something has shifted and we can no longer be who we once were. For we witness the opening of a world, when the planets align and we have access to new people, new cultures, new ideas. I walked through a threshold I didn’t know existed and I can’t find the way back. The road has melted before my very eyes, but even if I could find it again, I would not want to.

“At either of those places…”

“At either of those places you felt that you were taking part in a crusade. That was the only word for it although it was a word that had been so worn and abused that it no longer gave its true meaning. You felt, in spite of all bureaucracy and inefficiency and party strife something that was like the feeling you expected to have and did not have when you made your first communion. It was a feeling of consecration to a duty toward all of the oppressed of the world which would be as difficult and embarrassing to speak about as religious experience and yet it was authentic as the feeling you had when you heard Bach, or stood in Chartres Cathedral or the Cathedral at León and saw the light coming through the great windows; or when you saw Mantegna and Greco and Brueghel in the Prado. It gave you part of something that you could believe in wholly and completely and in which you felt an absolute brotherhood with the others who were engaged in it. It was something that you had never known before but that you had experienced now and you gave such importance to it and the reasons for it that your own death seemed of complete unimportance; only a thing to be avoided because it would interfere with the performance of your duty. But the best thing was that there was something you could do about this feeling and this necessity too. You could fight.”

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway, Ch. 18