03 April 2016

The Avocados Are Disturbing Very Much

So says my lady on the corner, who sells avocados and watermelons sometimes, and biscuits, candies, cigarettes, phone credit, lemons, peanuts, sachets of Fighter whiskey and knockoff Baileys, etc. all the time (including on Sundays, which can be a crap shoot at other places in Douala). Her exact words were, "les avocats dérangent beaucoup," and her reasons were that the ones she's been buying recently go rotten on one side while staying hard on the other.

She demonstrated this on a couple of disturbing avocados and told me that, while she couldn't vouch for the watermelons of the last couple of weeks either, she would sell me the small one for 1300 CFA. But the avocados? "Tu peux les prendre, maman. Je ne te les vends pas. Ils d√©rangent trop." ("You can take them, mama. I won't sell them to you. They disturb too much.")

This is one of the reasons I became a regular - she calls me mama (and I call her mama in return). The other reason? Her brutal honesty in re: her produce.

Usually, avocados are one of the great perks of living in Douala. You find a lady selling avocados and request either an avocado for today (un avocat pour aujourd'hui) or an avocado for tomorrow (un avocat pour demain). Then you dicker for a minute about whether this one is mushy enough or firm enough (depending if you want an aujourd'hui or a demain) and whether the price is 150 or 200 or 300 CFA (I usually raise my eyebrows for form's sake if it's 300, but then pay up immediately, feeling crushing guilt for haggling with a lady who is just trying to sell me avocados, for heaven's sake, and is likely about to make me very happy in my tummy.)

But this is the big city. Disturbing things can happen.

19 March 2016

Surprises of southeastern Cameroon

Before our visit in December 2015, we knew that the East Region of Cameroon had a sparse population that was fairly isolated due to a number of unpaved main roads. We also expected that it would be poorer as a result of its distance from the capital and coast, as well as the limited infrastructure. The primary users of the main roads seemed to be logging trucks, which in turn drove a lot of commercial activity.

Dusk soccer match in Yokadouma.
That said, there were a few unexpected qualities of this region. One pleasant surprise is that the Yaounde-Bertoua highway is now fully paved; our guidebook (the most recent edition is from 2011) described the road as paved for only half of the journey.

Southeastern Cameroon also had a surprisingly large Muslim population. We frequently saw Fulani herdsmen with their cattle as we travelled, and indeed the transportation from Bertoua to points north and south was generally run by Muslims (mostly Fulas from the north). Given that the Sahel region is generally where demographics of African countries shift from predominantly Christian to more Muslim (although the West Region of Cameroon is an exception to this norm), this was definitely a surprise. Of course, CAR has a significant Muslim minority which may have contributed to northerners making their way down here.

Main roundabout in Batouri.

The climate was also quite cool, especially in comparison to Douala. We could have done with sweaters in the evenings and mornings in Lobeke National Park, even though the park is in the Congo river basin, which conjures (up) expectations of steamy rainforests.

Distances from Batouri to Cameroonian towns and Bangui, CAR.

Finally, the generator at Hotel Elephant in Yokadouma ran all the way until 5AM!

La Diva Malienne

We went to an Oumou Sangare concert back in October. (I'm catching up, Internet!) It was great. If you ever get to see her live, do.

There are a few parts of the Oumou Experience that are standard diva -  

the commanding stage presence 

the costume changes 

the hair, the eyelashes (sorry, the zoom on my phone didn't do these justice), and so on.

There are also a couple of things that are more specific to being a West or Central African diva, like:

The lady with the really big handbag whose job it is to announce your presence, and 

to help collect the money pressed on you onstage by your public (below). (She needed a sizable handbag - and that's with an assist from the backup singers with calabashes.)

For those of you keeping score at home, farotage is alive and well in Cameroon, although Ms. Sangare's forehead and decolletage were generally left unplastered. The money mostly fluttered to the ground, to be picked up by the handbag holder and the ladies with calabashes.

Did I mention she looked STRAIGHT AT ME?

07 February 2016

640 to Yokadouma

For our December vacation, we decided to take advantage of the added time off, and the dry season which meant we could traverse roads that are usually impassable during the rainy season. During a previous visit to Yaounde we had taken down the WWF's phone number and thus began a long back and forth over email between us (well, Blair) and the WWF staff at Lobeke National Park, which is in Cameroon's portion of the Congo river basin.

Even with the roads dried out, the route would still take four days' travel each way. The day after school closed we began the easiest route – our much-loved train to Yaounde. The medical information video wasn't as interesting (on food poisoning, and without diverting graphics), but the usual complement of music videos kept us entertained. In Yaounde we visited Parc Sainte Anastasie (named after the president's daughter) and otherwise took it easy (and delighted Blair with the discovery of bacon-flavoured Tuc biscuits) after arranging for onward transport.

Kids fishing (hopefully catch-and-release) in Parc Sainte Anastasie.

The next day we traveled to Bertoua, the capital of East region. Our guidebook suggested that the road was paved only half of the way, so it was pleasant surprise when it was fully paved. I was a bit dubious when one of our neighbours on our large bus took a call shortly after we departed and said, “A bientot. J'arrive!” (See you soon. I'm arriving ~ I'll be right there.), but sure enough we reached Bertoua after just seven hours (excluding waiting time at the agence voyage/bus company). The main sight on our way was a German colonial outpost, along a tree-lined drive off the main road in Doume.

St. Tropez, a pleasant bar in Bertoua.

We did not find Bertoua very charming, although the fact that we stumped for a dumpy room right next to our car park for the following day's journey (and thus nestled between several agences voyages) probably did not help. We did find a colourful bar called St. Tropez and enjoyed a drink there before buying provisions for our stay in Lobeke. After fish at a bar up the road, it was an early bedtime for our 5AM wake up call.

Compound across the way from St. Tropez, Bertoua.

Bertoua, and the East region as a whole, was surprisingly cool, and we didn't particularly miss the fan, nor the pounding music from various road stalls, when the town's power cut off around 1AM. The agence voyage was pretty organized, and people were called by number to board our windowless minibus – number 640 to Yokadouma – of the style dubbed “prison buses” by PCVs-Cameroon. To be clear, there were holes for windows, just no glass. The back of the bus was separated from the cab by a metal cage. Blair surmised that, since we were likely to get covered with dust regardless, at least we would have decent air flow (passengers here are fond of closing the windows no matter how hot it may be). She was right – we did enjoy fresh air when opposing trucks didn't blast us with dust clouds that swept through the vehicle and reduced road visibility to zero.

We also got many opportunities to climb down from the bus so the “Control”/police/gendarmes could inspect every passenger's Karante (identity card). After the first few stops our fellow passengers began balking at this (extracting 25 people from a rather confined space and then stuffing them in again was time-consuming). Sometimes the authorities were satisfied with checking through the windows are seeing a “show of hands [cards]” but another admonished us to “Get down and stretch your legs, feel the earth” (underneath us this time...). With the rutted roads, dust and the traffic stops, the 300 kms to Yokadouma took us 9 ½ hours.

We passed many small villages hugging the roadside, the main economic lifeline, source of transport, and walking path. One waypoint, Batouri, seemed quite pleasant. Approaching Yokadouma we passed a camp for refugees from Central African Republic. It featured a banner exhorting residents to vote in last month's presidential elections in CAR; hopefully they will result in some reconciliation and stability, allowing the refugees to eventually feel safe enough to return home. They have fled to one of the poorest parts of Cameroon, and here and in other regions they face restrictions on movement and are sometimes exploited and abused.

Yokadouma at dusk.

Upon arriving in Yoka at dusk, we found a dusty town with a couple of blocks of commercial activity. After settling in at the Elephant Hotel, we walked back to the town centre and settled in for more grilled fish, batons (rubbery sticks of boiled manioc), beers, and people-watching (lots of men walking around with babies – a frequent sight in East region it would turn out). The Elephant Hotel kept its generator running until about 5AM, although the downside was that we killed six cockroaches during our one night there, with a couple more at large.

The van says "Soyons patience" - Let's be patient. Yokadouma, East Region.

The next morning it was time for our final leg of our journey, a Moloundou bus that we would alight from in Mambele, the nearest village to Lobeke. We held the last two numbers for our bus, so I fully expected each of us to be stuck in one of the fold-down middle seats, which inevitably only provide about 8 inches of back support and, as a result, no place to rest your arms and head on the seat/person in front of you. But our luck took a turn.

In my experience on cheap buses such as these through west Africa, the front seat (or two) next to the driver are usually grabbed first, and occasionally fought over if two men reach it around the same time. Here, however, there was no rush for them and they tended to be dispensed at the driver's discretion. Once it became clear that there were NO seats left in the back of the bus (this point comes sometime after the 1-2 people per row beyond when one would consider the vehicle full), we were promptly sent to join another lady in the front cab.

As we settled in, the driver was put off by the size of Blair's backpack - “C'est trop!” A ridiculous statement given the parlous state of the passengers crammed behind us, not to mention the sundry suitcases, motorbikes, plantain bushels(?) and poultry on the floor and/or roof of the minibus.

For 100 CFA you can attempt to stem the flow of dust into your lungs.

Given that we were again on a deeply rutted dusty road, being in front afforded us a number of perks:
  • - the driver would sometimes roll up his window when opposing traffic/dustclouds approached
  • - an unobstructed view of towns, villages and scenery (and advance warning of the dustclouds)
  • - relatively more space and comfort than behind the cage
  • - a “front of the roller coaster” feeling when cresting and about to drop into a particularly deep ditch
The only disadvantage was that the left portion of our seat (and thus the right portion of our neighbour's) was on top of the radiator and engine so it got rather hot.

We had a couple of bathroom breaks, multiple ID card stops, and slowed down so male passengers could jump onto the back or climb on top of the bus, but the bulk of our time was spent negotiating the furrows in the road caused by lumber trucks travelling over it in the rainy season. There was a lot less traffic than on the Bertoua-Yoka leg, so our masks were bought a day late.

There was a surprisingly large number of Fulani herdsmen in the southeast of Cameroon.
Among the sights were the delapidated trappings of a village, Salapoumbe, that must have been a prominent place during colonial times, replete with a big hospital, a large church, and (no longer functioning) streetlamps on the barrier of a “divided highway.” We also saw mosquito nets being put to use as goal nets, another unanticipated outcome, although perhaps less damaging than their use as fishing nets..

Church in Salapoumbe.

Upon descending in Mambele, we were met by Lucien and Jean-Baptiste, who work at Lobeke National Park. At the only restaurant in town Jean-Baptiste and I had beef stew and rice while Blair enjoyed an omelette and all of us had a soft drink. We were then dropped off at Camp Kombo, where we had bucket baths and relaxed in a small clearing in the forest that was the site of the lodges.

Lodging at Camp Kombo outside Mambele.

The next morning we went to the WWF office before eventually setting off for the trailhead. We then had a two hour walk to Petite Savane, a campground with nearby mirador/observation post. Our coterie of accompanists included:

  • - Desailly, our guide/pisteur: a freelance guide and part-time field researcher for the WWF, he also works at one of the parks across the border in CAR.
  • - Jean-Baptiste (Ji-Bay), the ecoguard: J-B has been working for the forestry ministry since 2006, and spent time extolling the virtues of working as a funcionnaire (government functionary) during fireside chats with the porters on unemployment in Cameroon.
  • - Platini, one of the porters: the second member of our party to share a name with a French footballer, he's the younger brother of Simplice. He impressed me by picking up one of the cooking pots with his bare hands just after the fire had burned a hole into it.
  • - Simplice, porter: Simplice works as a teacher, and was using the Christmas break to earn a little extra money.
  • - Adrien, porter: Adrien is a member of the Baka ethnic group. It seemed that this at times made him a target of teasing by the others.
  • - Cyrille, porter/cook: on Christmas night, Cyril quizzed me at length about the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and was impressed to learn that state governors are selected by direct election in the U.S. In Cameroon they are appointed by the president.
Aside from J-B (Yokadouma), all of the gentlemen were from Mambele.

Tree cover at Camp Kombo.

Before reaching the campsite, we took a quick look at the Petite Savane clearing. In one of the highlights (animal-wise) of our trip, there was a solitary male gorilla traipsing around and drinking water at the far end of the clearing.

Our solitary male sighting!

At camp, we discovered that a number of items were missing from the supplies we brought with us: tea bags and salt were not among the provisions, and Desailly was shocked and dismayed that we had not packed any either (and that we planned to cook without oil or salt). Our tent was missing too, so we squeezed into J-B's tent and he shacked up with the porters and Cyrille.

J-B's wife and four kids live in Yokadouma, so he only sees them every few weeks. He also, bizarrely, has to travel to the forestry ministry in Yaounde to collect his salary – a two to three day journey. As a result, he tries to space out his Yaounde trips so he doesn't have to spend so much time on the road. Express Union has been advertising salary money transfers for civil service workers, but perhaps the forestry ministry hasn't gotten organized yet. Whenever we went to one of the viewing spots, J-B invariably brought along his study materials for the Bacca(laureate). He is studying for this university entrance exam so that he can move up the ranks at the forestry ministry. The test is in May and lasts five days.

Colobus monkeys!

In the following days we got to explore Lobeke more, both from Petite Savane and a second camp site and viewing area called Djangui. We didn't see the forest elephants Blair was after, although we did see their footprints, droppings, and heard one trumpeting briefly one night. It was still fairly early in the dry season, so there are plenty of places for them to get water as well as lots of vegetation to obscure them. We twice saw vultures capture pigeons and saw a few families of colobus monkeys in trees and foraging on the floor of the forest clearings. Desailly showed off his “distress call,” which would attract curious monkeys and sitatunga (a medium-sized antelope). He was also able to spot baby cephaloph/Duikers nestled under trees as they awaited the return of their mothers.

Baby cephaloph/Duiker

Meals at camp were rice or pasta with sardines or beans, with biscuits for breakfast. Our companions had brought rice and cassava fufu flour, although Desailly commented more than once that he was planning to skip a meal on account of the lack of salt.

Evening discussions tended towards larger issues such as marriage and unemployment. Regarding marriage, J-B said that it can be luck (who you end up with, how it works out after marrying). Simplice said that his grandfather used to say that you should greet people loudly when you are returning from a trip, lest you catch your wife in trouble. Cyrille wanted to wait until he was gainfully employed before marrying. Finally, someone noted that a wife is like a car. If you take care of it then it will run well. If you don't, then you can expect problems.

A view of the Djangui clearing in Lobeke National Park.

These conversations (the employment one mainly featured Jean-Baptiste counseling the group to consider internship placements which could help them find eventual public sector employment as happened with him) generally took place in easy to understand French, with occasional exchanges in Bangando. Bangando and Baka (a “pygmy” language) are the main ones spoken around this area of Lobeke. We found the French much easier than Douala or Yaounde as it is invariably a second or third language for all speakers, rather than the lingua franca role it plays in big cities. People generally spoke more deliberately and formally (no slang) so it was quite easy to follow.

On our walks through the forest and visits to the viewing posts (where we'd usually stay for a few hours), we were led by Desailly and accompanied by Jean-Baptiste (who always brought along his study materials if our itinerary included a viewing station). The rest of the group usually stayed at camp, usually relaxing and preparing meals. On Christmas eve, though Desailly decided that they should supplement their rations with fish. So he sent Adrien, Simplice and Platini to fish in a nearby stream. On our walk we came across a large pond, so Desailly called everyone over and they set about catching fish for dinner.

Desailly and Adrien fishing for their (and our) festive meals.

This effort reached its apex on Christmas day, when the guys caught about 50 fish and we shared them amongst ourselves, along with pasta, fufu and rice meals. For the celebration itself, we ate our nice petit beurre biscuits for breakfast, and Blair played some music on her ipod and mini-speakers. No one was driven to dance, so we had lengthy chats with our team instead – mine mainly centred on Cyrille's afore-mentioned questions about the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, democracy in America and in Cameroon, and the feasibility of studying car plants in the U.S. then starting a car factory here. Blair and Simplice chatted about his musical aspirations (he writes religious songs and wants to put an album together); the three of us also talked about action movie stars and Simplice was surprised to learn that Jean-Claude van Damme and Arnold Schwarzenegger are Belgian and Austrian, respectively.

Kingfisher at Djangui clearing.

We asked Jean-Baptiste a bit more about his ecoguard work when he's not chaperoning tourists (of which there are lamentably few at present). He is one of 45 ecoguards who work in Lobeke. They escort research groups as well as patrol the park to protect against poaching. J-B didn't identify any animals that were especially targeted, and he noted that, given the park's location, poachers in Lobeke may be from Cameroon, CAR, or the Republic of Congo.

Monkey at Djangui.

The next day we were up early to hike back to our pick-up spot at Pont Casse. We stopped a few times as Desailly used his “distress call” to coax responses from colobus monkeys and a cepaloph patais that came quite close to us before darting off. After Dieudonne's eventual arrival to pick us up (with the excuse being that someone had accidentally shot themselves in the foot...), we went our separate ways at Mambele, with a plan to go out for drinks in the evening to make up for a low-key holiday season in the bush.

Lobeke camp site.

Once back in Mambele we went to Chez Mariette, the “nicest” bar in town with an outside area and a rather large concrete dance floor inside. We got an egg and beans omelette to share with everyone, and enjoyed seeing each other dressed sharp, and no longer covered with four days worth of dust and sweat. We enjoyed a few drinks and everything kicked off once the grupe electrique/generator came on around 6PM. We had a little dance circle around the table (each person gets a turn while the party claps/cheers along) before taking turns to head over to the dance floor. There we got to dance with some rather older inveterate drinkers, who then praise-sung you and demanded a drink: “You dance very well – buy me a beer!”

We got to meet Adrien's wife Pascaline, deflect arguments between two competing moto drivers for the start of the ride north tomorrow (including Desailly who duly failed to show up the next morning), and then headed back to Camp Kombo for a promised dinner of chicken (which turned out to be viande/beef stew with cuts of variable quality). We were only out until about 8PM or so, but it was a good amount of entertainment.

The next morning we arranged a backup moto ride with the Camp Kombo watchman Ma Joie (“My joy” - his wife was a good match for him as she is “Success”) and made our way to Salapoumbe. We got blasted several times by dust from lumber trucks, but were able to wash our faces and enjoy some porridge and beignets at our way point. A short time afterwards, a prison bus from Libongo (a border town near CAR) reached the junction and we were able to hop on.

Once again we managed to get the front row seats, which Blair decided to take despite the entreaties of the women in the back. They were a rowdy bunch, and made the driver stop multiple times for fish purchases, leading to him yelling “C'est la derniere fois!” Later on, as we stopped to shoehorn another suitcase-laden passenger into the back, the ladies there yelled, “Don't pick her up – she's fleeing her marriage!” Our driver soon forgot his admonishments about stopping for shopping once another gentleman entered the cab to share our seats. They soon got to discussing the prevailing prices of plantains, and soon we were stopping frequently to scrutinize and haggle over bunches of plantains. As one passenger remarked, “On fait cent metres, on s'arret” - He does (goes for) 100 metres, he stops.

Riding back to Yokadouma.

Despite this, we only reached Yokadouma a few hours later and, given our early morning start, were able to roam around town to enjoy some delicious liver and macaroni, a Christmas photo booth, a wedding with bridesmaids riding on the bonnet, while picking up essential provisions like mosquito coils and a small cup for bucket baths.

These roadside plants are green. They're just coated in dust.

Our ride from Yoka to Bertoua was another hot dusty affair. Our bus had some mechanical difficulties (perhaps the rear axle) so we got an extra hour to explore Batouri. It really is a nice town, with a couple of paved, tree-lined paved roads. We had some snacks, picked up a Show [sic] Yun Fat DVD compilation, then returned to the dust clouds. With the added stop, the 300 kilometer journey took 10 ½ hours.

Wedding convoy/cavalcade, complete with bridesmaids atop the car hood.

In Bertoua we abandoned the motels next to the car parks and stayed in a hotel further out. It was the best value hotel so far in Cameroon – 15,000 CFA ($25 or so) with cable TV, air conditioning and excellent water pressure, which was a great help in removing some of the layers of dust.
Our ride on to Yaounde was uneventful and quick – only 6 hours and the driver very rarely stopped (with these big bus companies they must have an arrangement with the security forces because we were never flagged down) – we only got down once after a woman asked the driver to stop so she (and thus about 25 more of us) could go to the bathroom; a male passenger remarked, “Elle a courage de parler” - She has courage to speak.

Christmas lights at Rond-point Nlongkak, Yaounde.

In Yaounde we gave ourselves a rest day and checked out the Reunification Monument (commemorating when the anglophone and francophone portions of Cameroon were formally united), joined several lines outside malfunctioning ATM/cash machines, and visited the Musee National.

Reunification monument.

The Reunification Monument has a clever spiral staircase design, showing the merging of the British- and French-administered parts of Cameroon (taken from the Germans and divvied up after World War II). It affords a decent view of the city, if a bit obscured at the time on account of haze caused by the Harmattan. Aside from a man who awoke from his slumber to demand to know what our motivations were, admission was free.

Statue next to the Reunification monument. I believe he is lifting up the youth of Cameroon.

The two portions of Cameroon merge!

The National Museum was quite impressive, and among the best I've visited in West and Central Africa. It is housed in the former presidential palace, which was donated by the president (who presumably still resides in nice digs). The museum had a stable of guides, so we had a complement of guides who all spoke English. In all, a half-dozen showed us around the various exhibits. There were interesting ones on de Brazza (apparently not a bastard on the level of Stanley), musical instruments, the stone age, and traditional clothing and accommodation of Cameroon's various peoples. Some of the colonial history was interesting, too, although the rooms for each decade from the 1960s onwards quickly devolved into photos of Paul and Chantal Biya with various dignitaries. The Egyptian wing also left a lot to be desired.

Former presidential palace, now home of the Musee National / National Museum.

On New Year's Eve we returned home. A low key evening featured grilled fish and beers on the street on the Douala Bar block of Akwa, then we went onto our roof to watch the fireworks (set off by individuals, although the Douala local government did put up nice holiday lights around the city).

16 December 2015

School Haul

Or, Now That Chris has Filled You in on Various Topics Social, Cultural, Geopolitical and Historical…Blair Takes You Shopping for Binder Clips

When you’re setting up a classroom, and an apartment, you end up buying a ton of stuff. (Full disclosure: for “you’re” and “you,” read “I’m” and “I.”) The classroom supplies and lavender baking pan proudly displayed above were the fruit of a long and eventful Saturday shortly after school started. Why did it take me so long to post this, you may wonder? Well, first of all, I had to shop for other things. Second, I had to recover – physically, psychologically, emotionally – from shopping for these other things.

There is, in fact, a whole huge category of things that are just about as easy to get in Douala as in Boston, for about the same price. We have supermarkets and pharmacies and home-goods stores and all like that.[1] This blog post, however, is not about that category, but about the next category over: the things that exist here, but not necessarily in an obvious (to the newcomer) place.

I already had an idea that there would be no one store for our needed miscellany – that the thrill of the hunt, with its attendant suspense, false leads, sweaty walks and sweatier taxi rides, would be very much alive and well in downtown Douala.

Reader, I won’t make you wait any longer – I was right!

Over the first few weeks, I came to realize that much of what one[2] needs, or feels very strongly one needs, is available somewhere in Douala – you just need to keep asking people where to find it. Start with coworkers; continue with employees of stores that looked as if they might have what you want, but upon closer investigation do not; if necessary, move on to taxi drivers and ladies selling bottles of peanuts. Then, walk into and around various places, using your soft eyes just as recommended on The Wire.[3] Sometimes, you may need to ask an employee (especially if, say, you wish to justify your presence in what has turned out to be an employees-only section). One option is to dig out your smart phone and hope Google has a locally-recognized French equivalent for, say, “accordion file.” At other times, the word may come back to you from eighth grade, the last time you learned any French that was practical. Or, you may be able to sort of describe your way around the object (“je cherche... un truc…dans lequel je peux ...ranger des papiers?…il est en plastique ou parfois en papier…?”) while still using your soft eyes so that, if it swims into your field of vision as you talk, you can point to it and thereby put an end to everyone’s discomfort and confusion. At still other times, you might prefer to make a rough sketch or to engage in some ridiculous mime (“I’m opening…an accordion file!!”)

Hopefully some combination of these tactics puts your quarry in your hands. All that remains, if you’re in a big store, is to take it up to the till, work out a mutually satisfactory arrangement with the teller re: your change (the ideal: a 75-CFA discount. Who has change for something that ends in 75 CFA? Stand your ground on this), get your receipt stamped by someone by the door, and then - crucially – remember where you actually found this item so you can tell others and later re-stock. (FYI, for those who are interested – those sweet orange stacking files, front left in the photo? Tsekinis, in Akwa. I *think* they also supplied the hot pink clipboard – if so, they’re clearly a go-to source for neon plastic office supplies that I may need in the future. They are definitely where I found the baking pan.)

If you are shopping on the street, the vendor will be much less particular about the stamped receipt and usually much more helpful about finding change. However, you will probably get sunburned while you stand around bargaining. Re-apply, Anglo shopper!

I have mentioned the two main categories of things you might shop for, with their ease of discovery and reasonableness of price compared to that in, say, Boston; however, I would be remiss if I did not discuss two other categories.

1.      Things that, if they exist, cost 7-20 times as much as one might expect them to. These include:
a.       Clothes hangers with clips. I spotted some for sale at an expat supermarket for about $9 apiece. I heard that a more local-friendly mart would be getting some cheapo-looking ones at the end of the month, but that month was October. How do people here hang up their pants and skirts? HOW?! For clothespins on wire hangers do not work.
b.      Baking soda. After one time buying tiny sachets of Alka-Seltzeresque powder from the guy on the corner who also sells doughnuts, soap and cigarettes, and about a week or so carefully sprinkling the tiny sachets into the cat’s litter box, a large box was finally found at Casino supermarket. Price: I don’t like to think about it, because I prefer to think of myself as someone who makes rational purchasing decisions. Suffice it to say that it was about 7-9 times what I had expected, and that I walked it straight up to the cash register and never looked back.
c.       Hanging files. There is just…no such thing. What can I say? Binders are not the same. Nor are the 3 tiny accordion-file briefcases below the map of Cameroon. Words fail me.

The above is a small slice of the pie, but a bitter one. Thank you, then, universe, for the last category – the one that eases the sting of all that went before. This category, larger by far than the preceding one, I shall call:
2.      Things that are cheaper and easier to find in Douala than in Boston. It includes:
a.       Socks
b.      Shoes
c.       Sunglasses
d.      Sponges
e.       Hats
f.       Tissues
g.      Mayonnaise
h.      Chargers and converters
i.        Wind chimes
j.        Jump ropes
k.      Kola nuts
l.        Peanuts
m.    Cell phone minutes
n.      Floor lamps
o.      Beer
Every third shop sells beer, and usually has a table and chair for you to consume it out front. This includes corner stores, wine shoppes, and office-supply stores. Plus, the beers are 65 centiliters – about twice the size of what I’m used to. Take that, America.
The rest of the items on the list are, if possible, even easier to obtain. If you sit outside long enough with your 65-cl. beer, someone will walk by selling one or several of these things. Tissues, mayonnaise, kola nuts and peanuts have set prices. Everything else is discutable.

[1] They’re not all in one enormous air-conditioned building with a big red circular logo on the front (tiny sigh), but they are here, and they are fine.
[2] One is a gently-reared, middle-class American lady who has been in the Peace Corps once, but who is not currently – thus, who is still reflexively cheap, but who now that she is in possession of a larger income, will damn well buy those throw pillows, thank you very much.
[3] Some people may interpret one’s soft eyes as “looking confused” and one’s wandering as “rummaging through what turns out to be the Employees Only section." Haters will hate. What matters is, did you find the fine-tip Wite-Out pen?

22 November 2015

Crater Lakes and Waterfalls

October 24-28

Our “fall” break was upon us and, after a week of protracted “Book-O-Ween” activities, Andrea, Blair and I were eager to explore a bit more of Cameroon. This led us to visit the borderlands of Littoral and Southwest Regions, where there are a number of crater lakes and waterfalls to see.

We started out with a minivan from Douala to Nkongsamba. It left fairly promptly, although being in the flip-down seat made my ride a little less comfortable. Having five passengers per row instead of the four that there are seats for probably kept us from jostling around too much.

Nkongsamba central market. Photo compliments of Blair.

Once in Nkongsamba we ordered sandwiches and Blair commited the faux pas of attempting to combine fish with avocado, causing one lady to walk away suppressing a laugh. The vendor demurred so we settled on chicken meatball and avocado combinations. From Nkongsamba we continued to Melong then back south to Melong II, where we negotiated for transport down to Chutes d'Ekom Nkam. We'd been advised by Joseph, a school security guard, to bring a bottle of something for the chief before heading to the waterfall. We found a much more formalized affair, so we paid our entry fees and did not get to meet the chief.

Mist from Chutes d'Ekom Nkam.

Ekom Falls served as the backdrop for scenes of the 1980s Greystoke Tarzan movie (other rainforest scenes were filmed in Korup National Park, near the southern border with Nigeria). Since we're still in the last throes of the rainy season, the waterfall was very impressive, and we were unable to swim in, or even safely approach, the pool of water below. Serge, the Falls-provided guide, noted that the waters feed the Wouri River in Douala.

The waterfall!

After a drink and snacks back in Melong, where Blair got us roasted corn and “plums” (the latter not to my liking), we made for Mbouroukou to spend the night. We stayed at a little villa outside the town, at the foot of Mt. Manengouba. Among the other guests were Spanish medical volunteers who were performing surgeries at a hospital in Bafoussam for a couple of weeks.

Approaching the falls.

The next morning we set off for Mt. Manengouba's crater lakes with our guide Alain. Alain was recommended to us by a Peace Corps volunteer who recently finished her service; she was posted in Mbouroukou. As we strode past small coffee and banana plantations on the lower elevations, Alain stated that Mbouroukou's citizens were virtually all of the Mbo ethnic group (there are some 250 in Cameroon, along with sundry indigenous languages). Alain and his family grow maize, beans, tomatoes, cassava and lettuce. Given the long rainy season in this region, Alain just has to plant his tomatoes and leave them to grow. By contrast, women in The Gambia drew water daily to support their vegetable gardens.

The start of our ascent of Mt. Manengouba.

Further up the hill, the farms gave way to smaller plots as well as cleared land for pasture. Alain explained that these higher elevations were settled by Peul/Fulani people about 100 years ago. As they are primarily pastoralists and thus did not need extensive farming space, the Fulanis' arrival did not cause any conflict with the original Mbo inhabitants (according to Alain). The village is called, appropriately enough, Monts. Besides raising cattle, horses and sheep and goats, the Fulani also grow a little bit of maize, lettuce and cabbage.

The peak of Mt. Manengouba.

After a long hike up narrow muddy paths (which we routinely saw women carry 100 lbs of goods down) we reached the top of the crater (Manengouba is an extinct volcano, part of a range stretching from Equatorial Guinea's Bioko Island up through Cameroon's southwest). The crater was largely treeless, a result of being clearcut for pasture for the Fulanis' livestock. The descent to Manengouba's twin crater lakes wasn't much easier for us as the grass grew thickly in uneven clumps so the crater floor was not flat at all. Five hours after departing we passed the “man” crater lake (which is sacred and so people are proscribed from using it, although I suppose it's a good source of groundwater) and reached the larger “woman” lake, which people can use for fishing and swimming. We enjoyed some lunch, a good rest, and a swim in the lake.

That's the woman crater lake in the distance.

The sacred man lake - no swimming!

Given our rather slow ascent, Blair reasoned that we would likely be clambering down in darkness had we returned the way we came. So we continued 7 kilometres down the dirt road to Bangem, the next town. The road was of course washed out, but you can walk on it (gingerly in our case) as well as ride motorbikes up and down. I later learned the road will be graded in the dry season – an annual tradition? About halfway across the crater we passed our second school of the excursion, with a sign that let us know we had entered the Southwest Region – it was an anglophone school.

School on the French side of Mt. Manengouba.

Muanenguba government school on the anglophone side.

Once in Bangem the first course of action was to put our feet up and have a drink. As we were getting settled in, an American guy invited us to join him and, per Cameroonian norms when inviting others, promptly bought the first round. It emerged that he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon several years ago, and was back in the country to conduct Ph.D. research on the fish populations of various crater lakes. We learned from him that the fish in Manengouba's woman lake were actually introduced by PCVs in the 1970s for either subsistence or income generation. He reckoned that he'd take several hundred ziploc bags of preserved fish back to the U.S. While he's been able to visit many of the crater lakes in Southwest region, the fons (local kings or chiefs) in Northwest region were less accommodating so he's not studied as many of them.

The walk down to Bangem.

As dusk was approaching we decided to look into transport back to Mbouroukou and our hotel. Given the late hour, the moto drivers tried to take advantage and hike their rates so we were at an impasse. This was broken suddenly by a heavy downpour of rain which forced us to seek refuge under the nearest vendor's awning. Once the rain ended we decided it was too dark, and the roads too muddy, for us to leave. Alain was a good sport and agreed that we'd have to stay in Bangem. After procuring a couple of cheap rooms at the Prestige Inn we returned to the bar for meat brochettes, beers and grilled fish and batons (rubbery boiled cassava sticks). In addition to our Ph.D. candidate and a couple of Cameroonian friends of his, we were also joined by Bangem's current Peace Corps volunteer.

We had an enjoyable evening chatting about fish stocks, Douala (the researcher disliked its relative unfriendliness, while the current PCV thought there were fun places to check out), francophone vs. anglophone Cameroon (with anglophone CamCam being described as more laidback), The Gambia and the Peace Corps. The current PCV's tenure is quite different from ours was – he is able to stream American football games. By contrast, I had to text Yusupha Touray in Kombo (the more developed, coastal region of Gambia) for sporadic updates on the 2006 NBA Finals.

After a not particularly restful night at the Prestige Inn, we began to make our way back to Mbouroukou. After an hour or so on the dirt road we reached Melong, where we enjoyed egg and bean omelettes and sweet (on account of the condensed milk) tea and wandered around the market for a while as Alain greeted people.

Our Mbouroukou lodgings.

Back in Mbouroukou we went to visit another Alain, who is the proprietor of a small cheese-making outfit, Le Bon Fromage. Alain buys milk from the Fulani women who bring milk down to the village from Monts, then makes a cheese which is similar to the Tome style of French cheese (I was not familiar with this variety). Alain learned about cheese-making from a Cameroonian woman who had a yearlong internship with Land O Lakes, after meeting some Land O Lakes people in her village near Nigeria (where her family owned cattle).

Fromagerie Alain said that his business is small at present (there's not much of a local market for cheese) and he hasn't found anyone interested in apprenticing with him so it's hard for him to ramp up production. A few outside visitors have expressed an interest in getting involved, but nothing's come to fruition yet. Anyway, his cheese is tasty and he was kind enough to call and greet Blair recently, a couple of weeks after we returned to Douala.

Once we said our goodbyes to Alain the guide and got back to the hotel we cleaned up and relaxed, mainly at a (much smaller) waterfall on the grounds. The rest of the day was uneventful aside from switching rooms after our first boukarou/hut had a few leaks.

The next day we began with a taxi to Melong (and another stop for egg sandwiches) then caught a minibus to Mbanga. From here we could take the train through farms and plantations (the closest road to the west, from Loum, is impassable presently) to Kumba. As we bought our tickets (“deuxieme classe omnibus”) the ticket agent noted with a chuckle that there weren't assigned seats on the train. I laughed too as he wished us well, but the train pulled up a mere 20 minutes later and, after the engine switched ends, everyone scrambled aboard. It wasn't too hectic and Blair managed to secure seats for the three of us without difficulty. The slatted wooden benches were more comfortable than many of our recent modes of transportation, although the frequent stops near isolated villages along the way made for a slow and sweltering trip.

Our move back towards Southwest region and anglo Cameroon was made clear by the vendors' presentations, all conducted in pidgin English. First was a man extolling the health benefits of the ginger lozenges and medicinal soaps he was hawking. Next and at points throughout the journey was a lady selling snacks and tissues. After her came a woman who focused first on dental health, selling carrot and aloe vera toothpaste (separate varieties – not a melange) and toothbrushes. She then moved on to discussing the virtues of a menthol rubbing ointment and finally shea butter. After all this focus on physical health, it emerged that our spiritual side would not be neglected (to be fair, the lozenge/soap salesman did begin with a prayer for our safe arrival). An elderly gentleman began a sermon that I didn't follow on account of the heat, our early start and his rather thick pidgin (although he did throw in a not-uncommon remark about being covered in Jesus's blood).

As mentioned before, the frequent stops are a boon for small communities with limited transportation links, especially in the rainy season. As Kumba was not a big administrative centre during colonial times I was curious as to why the train winded its way there. Clearly resource extraction played a role and Raymond, our friend from Edea who met up with us in Kumba, said the main export was bananas (cocoa and coffee are also widely grown in this area).

We had eru (cassava fufu with a palm oil and leaves sauce) for lunch across from the train station then dropped off our bags at a gaudy hotel that has met an inexorable decline – the lightbulbs in the mouths of the golden lion statues standing sentry have not been replaced in a long time – and made for Barombi Mbo, a crater lake just outside town.

The route to Barombi Mbo.

We got off our transport outside the entrance then proceeded to trudge up to the lake. The road was largely impassable by vehicle, with the exception of a Hilux pickup truck that gradually spun through the mire. It carried crates of beer, which gave us hope that the small restaurant was not only open in the dry season. It turned out that the beer was fated for across the lake, with the driver collecting empties and sacks of cacao to take back down to Kumba. The roads to/from the village cannot be used at present so the lake (which is 2.5 kilometers long) serves as a transit and freight route in the meantime. We got a short pirogue ride on the lake then walked along a track near the shore, enjoying views of skinks and a wide variety of butterflies.

Lake Barombi Mbo, Kumba.
Cacao from across the river, along with empty drinks bottles.

Back in town we wandered around the market and ate Cheese Balls/puffs (imported from Nigeria) then went to a bar for, yes, beers and brochettes of grilled meat. They were out of Beaufort and Beaufort Light so Blair tried the Beaufort Tango, which was a light beer filled with citric acid (or the synthetic equivalent); none of us managed more than a sip.

Later on a man asked if we were from the U.S. It turned out he was an RPCV who served in Mali and is now working with the UN. He and his Cameroonian colleague are visiting Regional health centers (the American is barred from their Far North trek) to train them on data submission by SMS/text message. The national Ministry of Health will send monthly texts, each separately address pregnancy, MCH, malaria, HIV/AIDS, etc. The health workers submit the amount of patients they've seen, materials distributed, procedures carried out, etc. Pretty cool stuff, although some of the older health workers weren't as comfortable with the technology yet.

The lightbulb in this lion's mouth (standing sentry outside our Kumba hotel) hasn't been replaced for some time now. Photo credit: Blair.

The next day we walked around Kumba with Raymond. We wandered through the market, where a lot of Igbos (from Nigeria) worked, as well as contingents of Malians and Nigeriens.

The conduct of the minibus touts should have tipped me off that we were in for a contentious day. After walking past some pointless tussles for our services we hopped into the fullest minibus and set off an hour or so later.

Fairly early on in our journey, we stopped at a police checkpoint and had to walk a short distance and show our Karantes (cartes d'identite) then rejoin the minibus. One traveler took exception to her “professional card” receiving greater scrutiny (particularly as several others did not bother to get out of the van and yet weren't accosted further), and began berating a young police officer, calling him an imbecile among other choice words.

Once we were back in the vehicle a younger lady exclaimed that she disagreed with the first lady's combative approach. (Most of the other passengers appeared to be a combination of amused and apprehensive that we may be detained further.) There followed a lengthy discussion of the merits of police stops (with the angry lady exclaiming that Boko Haram was just an excuse for the security forces to harass ordinary Cameroonians) and the generally poor behavior of the police. Despite generally agreeing on this, the ladies still yelled back and forth for a while (I think mainly about the wisdom of calling the police idiots to their faces).

Our driver eventually fell under the sway of all this combative behaviour. Initially he was quite friendly and greeted multiple fellow drivers on the road and sundry other people as we stopped in various car parks to pick up new passengers. Over the course of the journey, though, he became increasingly terse and was soon yelling at people who asked for their change, and berating people who hopped out to relieve themselves while he collected passengers. But we reached our stop in Bonaberi then got across the bridge and through rush hour fairly quickly. We then spent the next couple of days relaxing after our enjoyable though mildly strenuous holiday.