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.

img_2610

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.

img_2619

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?).

img_2628

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

Advertisements

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.

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.

Plunder

I spent two weeks at home with my family over the holidays, eating great food, seeing close friends, and speaking an amazing amount of English. It was so relaxing that I had no idea how the transition back to Switzerland would be. But I was in for some surprises.

The first surprise was the words. For the first week, French words on signs began to pop out at me. The words weren’t even anything special except for the fact that I knew what they meant. There was a secret power in the knowing, as if I could place the word in my pocket to use later when I needed it. It was almost startling how vivid they became, little pieces of life strewn around the city that were ripe for the taking. I plundered the words, locked them away safe in my mind so that I could know. Not figure out, but know instinctively what they wanted to say.

It’s this instinct that allows me to know what words mean without translating them. I am surprised at how the words to the songs we sing in church touch my heart differently than they did even one month ago. They seem closer, more real. The words mean more now and are permeating every aspect of my life, even my dreams.

Of course, it helps that the words are really all around me. When I am in an English speaking country, it is easy to choose not to speak French. But here, I have no choice. There are people with whom I could not otherwise communicate unless I wrap my tongue around these strange syllables and take out the words I have locked away. And I am already learning again, every day.

Sometimes I still feel like I am speaking in code. It seems cryptic and difficult, yet this code is the primary means with which a people think, discuss and dream. And slowly, I am cracking it, using this code to become a little more like them, discerning more with every conversation. There are times when it is a struggle, and then other times where I am walking down the street and I catch myself thinking in French. Cryptic or comforting, foreign or familiar, it’s becoming a part of me in a way that makes me think that no matter what happens, I will never be the same.

Lessons Along the Way

Recently I was talking with a friend about life lessons she had learned while traveling through South America. Hearing how her journeys shaped her into who she is today was a beautiful story. I know I could tell similar ones, and I love the idea of looking at place as a sort of classroom to learn the lessons we need.

Spain taught me a lot about courage. It was my first time abroad by myself, and bravery was a necessity to survive in another country. Canada taught me about living in the present. I learned that while future plans were helpful, life was happening right under my nose and wasn’t waiting for anything. There were many other lessons, of course, some too personal to post here. But what intrigues me is how I don’t always understand the lessons as I am learning them. Hindsight tends to bring clarity. So while I can’t say definitively what Switzerland is teaching me right now, I know that in spite of all the highs and lows–or maybe because of them–living abroad is still a great classroom.

I could go on about the advantages and drawbacks. However, what seems to be true regardless is how living abroad brings me to the end of myself much more quickly than if I were in a place where everything is familiar. It forces me to depend on God in a way that might not happen if I felt like everything was under my control. And living in a another country shows us how quickly we are not in control: of our own cultural assumptions, of finding our way; even our tongues betray us as we struggle with the local language. It is in this lack of control where we can finally begin to learn.

I measure my life in countries and years. But these are just specific ways to look at seasons of life, where we learn something about who we are and who God is. The key is to look back every once in a while, to realize we have not come here overnight, and to see what each season has taught us.

Big Sur

Today I am thinking about one of my favorite places in California. Big Sur is on the central coast with big hills rolling into the ocean, forests and mountains, hidden beaches and gorgeous vistas.

Big Sur

I have a lot of good memories of going there with my family, and something about the ocean always stills any turbulence in my heart.

Big Sur panorama

The grey skies of November make me long for sun-drenched beaches, the pulsing sound of the waves, and the mosaic of redwood branches in a fairy ring against a blue sky.

Solitude

The cemetery was quiet, with fresh flowers in tidy bundles. I saw a lone man with a stooped back gazing at the cathedral before slowly turning toward the dying light. He put on his hat and leaned on his cane as he started his descent. I felt an urge to talk to him, to hear his story, and to know where he was going. It seemed terribly important at the time. But he was already gone.