Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A fresh Cameroonian perspective

During and after his visit, Shawn did an awesome job of capturing a lot of the details of Cameroon that fail to strike me as different anymore, or that I just no longer notice. He’s got insightful commentary on my village and the quirks of life in Cameroon, which I totally recommend!

Cambridge to Cameroon

Marshmellow peeps, nassaras, sacred poop and the man with 50 wives

The Crab Sorceror and the Human Zoo

Not the Queen's English

Dispatches from the volcano

Thoughts from a mugging

The joys (and otherwise) of Cameroonian transportation

On arguing, protocol, and nose-picking

Closing thoughts on Cameroon: Mamoudou's question

Til next time, tout le monde!

Cameroonian Vacay Part II: The Overachiever’s Vacation

Or, being a tourist in “my own” country! (Continued from the previous blog, for anyone who actually reads more than one of my rambly blogs!)

Biking the Ring Road
This agenda item, a staple on any over-achieving agenda, was certainly Shawn’s idea! I’m so glad we did it! Biking has got to be one of the most thrilling ways I’ve ever viewed a country-side, in spite of the hit to the entire lower half of my body. Our plan was to spend 4 – 5 days on the bikes and make a complete circle (thus, the title Ring road) on the road north of Bamenda. When we started, I thought I was going to DIE. We’d taken a car to Kumbo, and hopped on the bikes from there. I had congratulated myself on the fact that taking a car to Kumbo meant we missed out on an entire day of uphill riding. The congratulatory mood lasted very briefly as the road out of Kumbo ascended at a much sharper grade, and for far more kilometers than my legs had requested. Fortunately, (and mainly for my sake!) we made a no-heroics pact, which meant either of us got to hop off the bike and walk whenever we felt the urge, or the nastiest of the steep hills required it. And Shawn gets mad props for having ridden a bike about 4 inches too small for him the entire time, and giving me the good big bike!

We made good time on both of the days we rode, and stayed first with a fellow PCV in Ndu, and then in a simple “hotel” in Misaje. The fact that the road is pictured as a main road on any Cameroonian map is a little alarming. The vast majority is red dirt, and usually only one lane. Some parts are so bumpy that, especially on the downhills, you are clutching your handlebars for dear life as your whole body is jarred. Totally worth it though :) The scenery varied from brilliant green tea plantations near Ndu, to cliff-side views after Nkambe, and jungly villages as we neared Misaje. The huge downhills after Nkambe were exhilarating but so demanding of attention, in that one wrong move could send you over the edge of all that lovely cliff scenery. Not the kind of close-up I want.

Some areas seemed completely isolated, nothing but the occasional Fulbé herder and his cows to block the road. In almost every village, we were greeted enthusiastically from the locals along the side of the road. I’m all for the Cameroonian love of greetings, but I had to keep my exuberant waving in check so as not to send myself careening off the bike (it almost happened once… not worth being that culturally-appropriate!) Many of our greetings were the classic Cameroonian statements of the obvious, “You are riding!” To which the best response is, yes, “We are riding!” And that’s how they roll here.

When we got into Misaje, we realized that the breaks on my bike were dying, and Shawn had a wobbly wheel, so we decided to just go for a hike and jump on a bus back to Bamenda instead of continuing the circuit.

The day we arrived in Misaje, I got a pleasant surprise—rain! Living up in the Sahel, I hadn’t seen it since October. The rains came to Misaje no less than 20 minutes after us—quel timing! The “hotel” where were staying had some running water, but seemingly not enough for both of us to take showers. And I was so filthy: sunscreen, bike grime, another layer of sunscreen, grunge from the road, sweat, some more muck just for good measure. So I wasn’t going to take any risks. While Shawn was in the shower, the rains were coming down in torrents, and I took full advantage of them. I should note that when it rains in Cameroon, life comes to a grinding halt. Don’t expect any fulfillment of prior obligations, on-time meetings, etc! So, yes, if any of the locals would have seen the nassara bathing in her undies outside in the pounding rain, they likely would have been scandalized… but everyone’s dignity remained intact and I’m proud to report I returned to a non-hazardous level of cleanliness. There’s something very satisfying about re-uniting your birthday suit with Mother Nature and her pouring rain. :)

Once clean, we went for dinner in an absolute hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and I was totally distracted by hearing Fulfulde for the first time since leaving the Extreme North. In a country where you can travel one hour in any direction and come across at least two other local languages, hearing Fulfulde at three days travel from home took me by surprise. But, the mountains that exist in the Northwest province are, in fact, a continuation of the same mountain chain where I live in the Extreme North. Although the Northwestern version is deeper and rolling, the Mandara Mountains, as they are called where I live up north, are craggy, smaller and rocky. The entire chain extends along the border between Cameroon and Nigeria. With the mountains, the Fulbé (or Fulfulde-speaking) people also spread along the border. While Bamenda seemed bustling, cosmopolitan, and relatively westernized, in the rural Northwest near the border, I re-found a comfortable sign from home in the Extreme North: boubous (aka: the man-dress)! As we distanced ourselves from Bamenda, I also noticed the women increasingly adopted a traditional way of dress: more pagne, less pants, and heads covered. At the end of our meal that night, I think the other diners in the restaurant were equally baffled to hear Fulfulde come out of my mouth when I told the waitress we were finished and asked for the bill. I love doing that!

After a few days to recover from the bike-fest, it was time for over-achieving endeavor #2:

Mount Cameroon
Let me just say, that mountain had me for lunch. And then it spit me out and had me again for leftovers. And no, I have never climbed a mountain before, in case you were wondering. Why on earth not start with the second-highest one on the African continent?!

Actually, climbing Mt. Cameroon is on pretty much every PCV’s to-do list and I’d been warned that my legs might not feel the same way for several days afterwards… Nevertheless, I was able to recruit a couple PCV friends, Lisa and Elyse, and so along with Shawn we made a fearless foursome. Pre-climb, we stocked up on lots of peanuts, avocados, bananas, hard-boiled eggs and digestive crackers. The climb lasted three days and two nights.

On day one, we went straight up the steepest face. We passed first through sweaty green jungle. Our guide was a great local guy, very knowledgeable, who stopped us multiple times to show us different plants used for food or medicinal purposes. I grabbed a few extra leaves of the plant used for gastro-intestinal distress. Just in case, you know. At 2,000 meters, we hit the tree line and emerged from the jungle. At times, the views were breathtaking. In front, all I could see was rock going up, up, up. And turning to look behind, all I could see below was cloud. Where the path was so steep behind us, it seemed as though the mountain just dropped off into nothingness. The view resembled that from an airplane. So many times, my climbing was just that—a four-wheel drive affair where my hands were grabbing onto any rock that seemed willing to help me up. As we reached higher and higher altitudes, I still felt like I was able to get enough air in my lungs, and just got used to my constant rate of panting.

The higher we climbed, the faster ominous clouds swept down along the mountain’s slope, with an intensity that rivaled only my desire to avoid said clouds and all their fabulous precipitation. Us vs. the clouds. (Spoiler alert: the clouds won.) Midway through the afternoon, Mother Nature gave us a fabulous bath. The lightning and rain had us hiding out in a hut along the trail for a good 2 + hours. Happily though, I’d swiped a book from my friend David’s house: 4,000 Questions to Get to Know Anybody and Everybody. And so while it poured outside, we huddled in with our questions and waited for the worst to pass. True we were all soaked, but still in good spirits. And by the way, would you rather be the President of the United States, or the world’s richest person? (Shawn and Elyse picked president; Lisa and I picked richest person. I’m hoping to go for a Bill Gates effect… and plan to contribute to the others’ campaigns!)

When we got to camp that night, we had a hot spaghetti dinner. While the noodles were a-cooking, Shawn and I went out to inspect the sunset, which was a gorgeous blaze of pinks and blues on the mountainside. Below, we could see lights from Buea, Limbe, and even as far off as the economic heart of the country, Douala. Malabo, an island that is part of country-in-disarray-next-door Equatorial Guinea, showed its peak through the clouds as well. That night I slept in clothes borrowed from almost every person in our entourage. (Living in the desert, I forgot that mountain-tops get COLD!!!) Thanks, team!

On day two, we all had the same sentiment—almost there, only a thousand more meters til the summit! Our goal of 4,095 meters waited patiently for us. I was planning to do a celebratory cartwheel upon arriving there. Ha! Arriving at the top, I must have looked like I’d just run a marathon—everything was dripping—my nose, my eyes tearing in the wind, at least it was too cold to sweat but cloud dew was everywhere. The peak was so narrow that I certainly would have made a rapid descent falling off the side of the mountain. So I saved the gymnastics for another day. And on top of that, the wind was so ferocious that I really almost lost my balance once just while walking a few feet!

Going down, I earned my Most Graceful 2009 award. Translation: I somehow can’t seem to stay on my feet on the downhills. Elyse and Lisa charged ahead and I was the pokey one in the back. At times, it literally seemed as though we were skiing. The small lava rocks just gave out from under you, so with every step you slid down a good two feet further. We lost the vast majority of the altitude in that first afternoon coming off the summit. Mt. Cameroon erupted as recently as 2001, and you can see spectacular lava flows—vast grassy fields interrupted by a now-hardened stream of black lava rock. We crossed several small peaks and deep craters, landscape unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

We’d been warned that the second day was the longest. But I had no idea how downhill does not feel good—knees aching on trails so narrow that I’m walking as though on a balance beam. I declared to the group that I’d discovered I must naturally walk with a very wide stance, cause these skinny trails were killing me! We finally arrived at a campsite, the sun was beginning to set, and feeling pretty desperate, I asked our guide how much longer. “One more hour,” was his perky answer. I was ready to just plow on through and be done, and looking to rouse the troops and be gone. I was getting a little impatient, until I realized (why am I always the last one to realize these things?!) that the porters had taken off their shoes and socks, our guide was lounging, and I was the only one who hadn’t realized the guide was kidding—we were already done for the day. With the last energy I had I squawked at our guide for being so mean, and he just laughed. Speaking of our guide and porters, unsurprisingly, I should note that these dudes who climb this mountain for a living do it in flip-flops, about once a week. Damn.

Day three got us off that mountain, hallelujah! The trail flattened out, and we were traversing mostly jungle that gave way to small family-owned plots of banana trees. Shawn generously lent me his iPod for the last section of the hike, so I got a fabulous combo of his favorite Filipino pop music interspersed with the podcasts of Dan Savage, a sex-advice columnist that had me cracking up. And when I laugh it gets dangerous, I tend to fall off the trail. And that’s how we came out of the jungle… I don’t have any pics at the moment, but will try to add some once I can!

La fin
As for the rest of the trip, I finally got to indulge my boozing-on-the-beach habit  in Limbe, one of Cameroon’s two beach towns. Our last stop was Douala, where Shawn caught his flight out and we had some other adventures... It was weird to take my bus back to Yaoundé sitting next to some random Cameroonian stranger, after spending collectively 63.5 hours next to Shawn in Cameroon’s transport (yes, I counted. :) He was a super travel buddy!

Coming home
An interesting note from my trip home: I was on the bus north from Ngaoundéré to Maroua, the main axis through half the country. Suddenly, the bus screeched on the brakes for no apparent reason. All the startled passengers looked out the window to see, sitting calmly in the opposite lane, a baby that looked no older than a year, complete with a cute bonnet. How that baby was not burning its bum on the hot pavement is beyond me, but WHAT is a baby doing sitting in the middle of a main national highway?!

Two men jumped out the bus, one to scoop up the baby, and the other headed straight for a woman sleeping in the shade under a nearby tree. Whether that was the mother or not, who knows, but the guy from my bus smacked her across the face and lit into her! I don’t know which shocked me more. It’s true that people here seem to feel a responsibility for raising other people’s children: the “takes a whole village to raise a child” concept. The same applies to disciplining others, of any age, seemingly.

Lastly, when I finally arrived home, I was nervous I was going to be lonely, since I’d had constant companionship for almost a month! Two minutes after getting off my bus, I ran into my friend Aboubakar, and when I got to my house, my neighbor Aissatou came running out of her compound with her arms wide open, “Fleuraaaaaaaaaaaaange! A warti!” Not gonna lie, I sure don’t get that kind of treatment in the Etats-Unis; I could get used to this. :)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Cameroonian Vacay Part I: Chad and the Extreme North

Cameroon through new eyes.

I just put my friend Shawn on the plane and let me say, that is a vacation to recover from--no relaxing daiquiri-sipping on a beach! (Although for the record I have absolutely no aversion to such activities. And actually, we did drink some cheap boxed wine on the beach. How's that for classy?)

In the roughly three weeks that Shawn was here I think I doubled the amount of Cameroon I've seen. It sounds cheesy as hell, but Cameroon is often called "Africa in miniature." I see why. It blew my mind to see the posts of several of my friends, and just how different their Peace Corps experiences are, all in the same Cameroon. Since the trip was long, I'll probably break this into a couple of blog entries, but starting with...


I went to your average country-next-door-in-conflict, Chad, to pick up Shawn. Sadly, pretty much every country surrounding Cameroon is either under a dictatorship or is just a little sketchy, so my travel options are kind of limited. I crossed the border into Chad with no problem, I believe largely due to the fact that I was wearing my ugly green women's days pagne. Wearing local fabric and clothing really does give you so much credibility here. At each of the border checkpoints I received the same smiles and nods, "Ahhh, you live in Cameroon, yes, it shows! Pass right on through."

Before heading to the airport to fetch Shawn, I went for a quick walk around the neighborhood in N'Djamena. I got the most whistles from a group of women sitting at a bar. When they signaled me over to join them, just for kicks, I complied. Once again, thanks to my ugly women's day pagne that had gotten their attention! They quickly proposed a Chadian husband for me, and showed me the Chadian version of the women's day wear--it comes in teal there--sweet!

The architecture in N'Djamena is slightly different from on my side of the border--you can see the increased Muslim influence. More little turrets and mosques on every corner, and much more writing in Arabic. It's directly upon crossing into Chad that Fulfulde as a lingua franca seems to stop, and Arab Shua takes over. The huts in and around N'Djamena are also different from those of much of northern Cameroon. Some of the huts reminded me of the very square mud structures I'd seen in Mali, and others were bigger, taller structures--the driver explained it was because the Arab Shua people who dominate this area are so tall.

A few more subtle things I noticed about Chad--there seems to be an undercurrent of energy that I hadn't felt in Cameroon. I actually saw buildings with names of political opposition parties on them, something I have yet to see in Cameroon. The Cameroonian driver of the car kept saying, "Ah, Chadians, so aggressive, a mean people!" I, however, like that fire in their blood--it's a relief to see people rise in action as opposed to the passive acceptance that I feel pervades Cameroon. That said, Chad is a tough tough place. The eastern side of the country is plagued with rebels spilling over from Darfur, and Peace Corps got out of there back in '06. In early '08, rebels from the East stormed through N'Djamena aiming to unseat dictator-du-jour Idriss Déby. Our driver showed us avenues that used to be tree-lined but now were recovering from the invasion. N'Djamena reminded me of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, with its overwhelming presence of foreign UN security workers, and gave me a familiar pang of sadness.

I drink beer?

What happened? Beer has tasted disgusting for as long as I can remember. (That's why I drink a lot of whiskey sachets.) After Shawn's late-evening arrival, we escaped from the Catholic mission where we were staying and ran down the street for him to have his first African beer. We had to convince the bar-man to keep the place open for us. But I had totally forgotten--beers here are .65 liters--that's about twice the size of any old American beer. So when Shawn got his beer, he got a little wide-eyed, and as a good hostess, I was obliged to help him drink it. And for whatever reason, beer stopped tasting awful for the first time in 27 years. I'm (not so) proud to say that in the past three weeks I have now roughly octupled my lifetime consumption of beer. Thanks Shawn :) At least I am supporting a Cameroonian industry.

Chez moi:

Taking Shawn around Mokolo was great fun. Naturally, if I'm toting a male of my age around my town it is because he is my husband/future husband. We visited a local chief who has 50 wives, who commented to Shawn, about me, "Obviously this is your your future wife, as you came so far to see her." I didn't try to explain frequent flyer miles in Fulfulde. I think the chief also sized me up and added something along the lines of "She's worth it," which I'll take as a compliment!

Visiting my favorite neighbors with Shawn was also entertaining. I'd previously explained to them how in the States, before deciding to get married, men and women often talk about things like how many babies they want to make, and that the couples do not typically have the twenty-year age gap, as is readily seen in Cameroon. So we went by Aissatou's house, and after promptly ordering us to eat mangoes, she began questioning us. Just for the hell of it, when she asked me if Shawn was my future husband, I just looked at him and said, "Yep!" When she asked how many kids we were going to have, Shawn proudly announces "Ten or twelve!" I think Aissatou and her family got a kick out of my shocked face, and fortunately, Shawn knew how to say "I'm joking" in French. (Yeah, he better... so much for all my women's lib educational efforts!!!)

I also took him to meet a friend who runs a small local NGO, Mamoudou. I'd mentioned to Mamoudou that I wanted to bring Shawn by, and in a typical bit of hospitality, Mamoudou had planned an entire day's excursion for us that I had to gracefully get out of. Mamoudou is very go-hard-or-go-home. He doesn't do anything halfway. When he writes requests for funding projects, he puts in flowery statements about the poor thrusting their feet against the stones of Mokolo. When he asks me to edit, I usually nicely cut out those lines and throw in some more western-style statistics. So Mamoudou went straight for the jugular with Shawn, in his nice and hospitable way. Within probably fifteen minutes of our arrival, Mamoudou asked him, "What is your definition of development?" And then, "So what knowledge will you take away from Cameroon and us, the poor, after your trip?" Fortunately, in addition to the questioning, we got to take away a fabulous lunch. Mamoudou's wife is a great cook, and she'd made some traditional couscous and sauce--Shawn's birthday lunch, in fact! We ate together in the traditional way, with our fingers burning on the hot couscous, at a little table on the dirt floor, as all seven of Mamoudou's kids came through to greet us. I love it when my varied worlds collide.

Back to the present: I've just had a meeting down in the capital, Shawn's safetly back in America by now, and I'm about to get on the long long train to head back home to the Extreme North. Vacation is over and no more ice cream for me, but I'll write more about the trip in a next blog. À bientot! :)