Traveler’s delight: video of Timbuktu, Senegal and more

I’m finally getting around to uploading videos from my backpacking trip onto YouTube; I didn’t have a fast-enough Internet connection to do this while I was in Africa.

My favorite: getting caught in a sandstorm in Timbuktu. Turn on your sound!

You can browse the rest of my videos, too: hear a mosque’s call to prayer in Senegal, watch the reaction of kids in a Senegalese village when rain falls for the first time that season, feel the pulse of an outdoor market in Ghana, or ride on the back of a motorcycle toward a Cameroonian village.

None of this stuff is edited; it’s all raw video. In some cases I think that’s the coolest stuff. I’ll be adding more over the next few days.

Does this inspire you to feed your wanderlust?

Time for an excerpt: Another marriage proposal

It’s been a while since I posted an excerpt from my book. And I’ve written so much during the last few months! So today I want to share something short that will make you smile.

This piece is from the middle section of my book, which takes place in Cameroon. (It’s adapted from my travel blog.)

* * *

On one of my final days in the Yaoundé, I visited the patisserie down the road from the guesthouse, a bakery that sold homemade ice cream, a delicacy I’d found only in Africa’s major cities. Set up like a modern bakery in France, it offered freshly baked bread, sugary cake bites and glazed fruit tarts, all displayed deliciously under clear plastic cases, protecting the treats from the drool of customers. While I mused over the selection of ice cream flavors, similar to those I’d choose from at home, the man behind the counter hit on me like he did every day when I arrived for a scoop.

“Ma cherie,” he purred, using the same pet name, “my dear,” that at least a dozen other African men had tried on me. “You know I want to marry you.”

I did know. He had told me yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that, even though he was at least twice my age. (Let’s pretend I wasn’t getting ice cream every time I went into the store.)

“Bonjour. How are you today?” I responded politely, pretending to give him my attention while I debated whether to go with chocolate or coffee-flavored ice cream.

He ignored my greeting, pressing on with more important issues. “Do you have any friends here?” he asked, leaning over the counter toward me, his beer belly showing through his apron. “I want to marry a white woman.”

Way to make a girl feel special, I thought. Me or my white friends, it doesn’t matter.

I browsed through my mental library of witty replies. Ignoring him – an effective tactic when it came to dealing with men who hissed at me from the side of the road – wouldn’t work, since he stood between me and my ice cream. I’d already tried several of my go-to retorts with this guy during previous visits, including turning polygamy on its head and asking, “Would you like to become my second husband? Because I’ve already married one man.” The day before, as I ordered a cone topped with chocolate chip, I had even described the husband who awaited me in the States, a fictional character I’d talked about so much during the last four months that I half expected the dark-haired hottie to pick me up at the airport when I arrived home.

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An excerpt: Cameroonian patience

Last Monday, I kicked your butt into gear. This week, a gentler form of inspiration, an excerpt from my book.

Wanna learn about my travel memoir first? Check out this post.

* * *

Packages from home take on new meaning in Africa. Peanut butter? Like gold. A favorite deodorant? More valuable than cash. And batteries for my digital camera that actually worked — they elicited a fist pump into the air.

So when I returned to Dschang, Cameroon, after a week in the village, I beelined to the post office. My sister had mailed me a parcel weeks before, and I desperately hoped it would arrive before I left the region.

The post office’s small main room was shoulder-to-shoulder crowded and loud, with mostly men yelling toward what appeared to be the front of the “line.” What was this chaos? Were they picking up government paychecks? I was about to tap on a man’s shoulder and ask when a post employee recognized me – not many whites frequented the Dschang post office. He gestured to follow him behind the counter, into the package room, where I had collected a parcel from my mom the previous week.

Bonjour,” I greeted the woman behind the desk as I took a seat in one of her office chairs. “Do you have a package for me?”

“I think I remember seeing one here for you,” she said, getting up from her seat to shift through boxes and padded envelopes that crowded shelves, waiting to be claimed.

“Really?” I pulled my passport out of my bag, knowing she would need to see it to confirm that I was the intended recipient.

“Yes, it’s here,” she confirmed, reaching behind a few boxes. “But, oh, I remember this package now.” She pulled the thick envelope out from behind the others. “I’m sorry to tell you there’s a problem. It arrived in poor condition.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” I said quickly, assuming the mail had been dropped in a puddle or smashed by the weight of other boxes. After all, it had crossed an ocean to reach me. “I’ll take it regardless of its condition.”

Now on her desk, the package clearly had ripped open sometime during its voyage, but the tears were at least partly covered with clear plastic tape. I held out my passport, eager to collect my parcel and leave so I could delve into my gift, but the employee wasn’t as ready as I was.

“You can see this package arrived here weighing one-and-a-half kilograms,” she said, pointing to scrawl on the envelope that apparently was official. Then she moved her pointer finger to a different part of the parcel. “But it left America weighing three kilograms.”

What was she getting at? My package had been so badly damaged that it lost half its weight? How could that happen? I looked at the woman, puzzled.

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More than a run: A lesson from Africa

When I ran the Freihofer’s Race for Women six years ago, I had just returned from my first trip to Africa.

I had lived with a polygamous family in Cameroon and developed friendships with the four co-wives. The women had inspired me, showing both physical and spiritual strength when they had so little of everything else: no electricity, barely enough money to meet their children’s needs, and no financial or personal freedom to pursue their dreams.

Just weeks after returning to the States, I waited behind the starting line of the 5K race in my hometown of Albany, NY. Standing next to my mom, sister and thousands of other women, I could feel the pre-race anticipation grow as crowds of runners stretched and ran in place, preparing for the contest.

But everyone stood still when the national anthem began to play. As the words of the Star-Spangled Banner echoed through the crowds, I watched the women and girls standing around me in solidarity, as well as the men and boys on the sidelines, there to cheer us on. Suddenly it hit me, how lucky I was to be a woman in America, free to run this race, supported by both the women and men in my life. I started to cry.

My sister, who’s close to me in age, looked at me with wide eyes, horrified and embarrassed that I would shed tears in public. But my mom somehow understood my feelings, and she teared up, too.

That’s when the starting gun went off. We ran the race, and though I had to be escorted to the medical tent at the end — apparently running doesn’t mix with a recent bout of malaria — we crossed the finish line with hoards of other proud women.

Why am I sharing this with you? Because today I’m running that race again. Back from another trip to Africa, I’ll again stand behind that starting line and reflect on what it means to be an American woman, how lucky I am to have a pair of running shoes, the freedom to run for fun, and a country that finds women valuable enough to give us a race of our own.

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Taking cues from Grandma

At my grandmother’s assisted-living center, residents line up their walkers in the hall when they go into the dining hall for a meal. When I went to visit this week, more than a dozen black roller-walkers were up against the wall, each personalized with nick-knacks hanging from the bars.

I planned to take a day off from writing for my visit. After all, it took an hour just to get to Grandma’s place, and we had a doctor’s appointment and lunch on the agenda.

But those walkers sparked a memory, reminding me of a scene that deserves space in my book. Before I knew it, I was asking the receptionist for a pen and jotting down notes:

One night in rural Cameroon, I sat on a short stool in a dirt-floor kitchen, around a smoldering fire, sharing dinner with a family. Three teenage boys, who represented just a fraction of the large polygamous family, peppered me with questions about life in America.

“In America, do you eat corn?”

“Do children play soccer in America?”

“In America, do people ride motorcycles?”

Then the oldest in the group, 18-year-old Sylvain, threw me this curve ball:

“Is it true that in America, when someone grows old, you send them away to live with other old people?”

Thanks to Grandma’s hallway full of walkers, that scene — and my flustered, embarrassed response — is now on my to-write list. Sometimes, a day off from writing can do a writer good.