31 July 2018

Arik to Benin (eventually)

The title refers both to our transport and my overdue posts – our holiday was in December 2016-January 2017.

Note the original departure time at right. Meanwhile, we
boarded some three hours after we were to take off.

Travel within central and west Africa can be very expensive, so we were glad to find some pretty cheap return tickets from Douala to Cotonou with Arik Air.

Shortly before travelling, though, Blair broke her arm so we did inquire about cancellations. Since none were possible, we decided to forge ahead with the trip and try to minimize our use of zemidjans (motorbikes – the main form of public transport).
Cathedral Notre Dame des Apotres in downtown Cotonou.

The day of our flight I received a call saying that our flight to Cotonou had been delayed by two days. She asked if we wanted to keep our original return date or push it back to maximize our time in Benin. We elected to adjust our stay, and the Arik representative signed off with “Greetings to madame.”

Once at the Douala airport, I called the Arik representative back to see about checking in for the 3:45 PM flight. She said the ground crew was coming soon (it was 3 PM), so we gave them a few minutes. After check-in we headed to the bar with two fellow travelers - a PCV-Cameroon who had recently finished his service, and a Cameroonian PE teacher.

La Beninoise: the national beer.
We ended up having a couple of hours to get to know our new friends. The PCV was based in Batibo, the palm wine capital of Cameroon which, lamentably, we never got around to seeing. The PE teacher was on his way to Mali to meet up with his brother. So he was going to get a bus direct to Bamako (via Burkina Faso) from Cotonou since the flight was so much cheaper than any to Ouagadougou or Bamako. From there he and his brother were going to travel to Guinea, where their grandfather used to run the National Library after he had to leave Cameroon for being a Communist (and was taken in by Sekou Toure).

Our flight eventually left around 6 PM, and we proceeded to the rather laid-back Beninois immigration upon landing. Blair was ahead of me and the immigration officer asked her what happened to her arm. Her colleague in the next booth began pointing/scolding and laughing, saying, “C'est ton papa!” (“It was your dad! [i.e. husband]”) After concluding the round of joking denials and accusations, we got a taxi to the rather nice Hotel du Lac on the lagoon leading out to sea.

[For the record, an unfortunate Holiday Show accident was to blame.]
No Littering sign on the beach in Cotonou.
While we didn't stay very long in Cotonou, a few things did stand out to us. First of all, the Beninois are very well-dressed. While this is not out of the ordinary for the region, what struck us was that most people used local fabric (well, with locally inspired designs at least) for their clothing. There were also a lot of men wearing complets – shirts and trousers in the same fabric. Mono-chromatic Western-style clothing was much less common than say in Douala.
Beach in Cotonou.
A big difference with Douala was the fact that almost every motorcyclist had a helmet. Apparently it's the law in Benin, and to keep up appearances most people wear one (although the strap is rarely buckled). Enforcement of this practice was non-existent outside the capital so there were far fewer helmets there. The near total reliance on zemidjans meant that we did have to ride them more than expected, although there were a couple of taxis based near our hotel and the excellent Benin: Other Places Travel Guide (written by PCVs) listed drivers that could be hired around town and for longer trips.
At an eponymous bar.
There weren't a great many sights in Cotonou, although we enjoyed some beers by the beach and also checked out a Keith Haring exhibit at Fondation Zinsou's Cotonou branch at the end of our stay and enjoyed walking around town. A craft center in town was somewhat uninspiring, especially since I couldn't find a decent Benin national team jersey (they are the Squirrels!).
Part of the Keith Haring exhibition.
At the end of our trip it was time to revisit Arik Air. We got to the airport an hour or so before takeoff so we checked in and then I asked if we had time to go get lunch (like Douala's, the Cotonou airport is quite close to a residential area with restaurants around). We had time – the plane hadn't left Lagos yet.

We returned a couple of hours later to discover that most of the ground staff had disappeared. The flight had not left, and we proceeded to the gate to find out more from the other passengers. We were glad that we'd changed our flight from December 31 to January 3, as the 12/31 flight was completely canceled! One waiting passenger's visa had expired (she was scheduled to leave on the 31st), while others shared their previous challenging experiences with Arik Air. Once Arik's ground attendants arrived, they were berated over the reason for the delay (it's beggared belief that a Nigerian airplane could be grounded in Lagos due to lack of fuel!).
More from the Keith Haring exhibition.

We were eventually shunted to a defunct duty free shop where we were given styrofoam containers of chicken and rice, as well as a soft drink, for our troubles. We passed the next few hours listening to our fellow passengers share war stories about flying with Arik, as well as ASKY, which sometimes leaves early before partner flights arrive.

The time in between flights was wonderful, and I'll try to do justice to how great a destination Benin is in subsequent posts.

At Fondation Zinsou, Cotonou.

29 May 2018


While in Buea for a wedding and climbing Mt. Cameroon, we saw a billboard advertising FADAM – Festival Africain des Arts Martiaux – with Jackie Chan depicted and listed as being in attendance, as well as Dominique Saatenang Dominique Saatenang (“The African Bruce Lee”). It sounded like the event would be held in Limbe, so we decided to try to find out more.

I spent some time trying to track down confirmation that Jackie Chan was coming to Cameroon, stumbling upon blog posts parsing these claims/rumours. Further rooting around suggested that in addition to Jackie Chan, Gerard Depardieu would be coming to the African Festival of Martial Arts.

“Invités” means both guests and invitees, which is a little confusing.
Happily, it turned out FADAM was also coming to Douala so we went to check it out with a couple of friends. It was presented on an outdoor stage of the new Canal Olympia Bessengue cinema, right next to the train station.

Dominique Saatenang welcoming FADAM participants.

Overall, we really enjoyed the event. There were of course some quintessentially Central/West African event characteristics. These included the starting time (delayed by only an hour or so due to setup and then waiting for the arrival of the governor of Littoral Region), the audio equipment exposed to the coming storm, and a vociferous audience members yelling “Kill him!” in French during the martial arts demonstrations. And of course Jackie Chan joined us via video greeting, which was first played without images. No sign of Depardieu!

Jackie Chan sends his regrets.

The martial artists were great. They were from all over the world (besides the Shaolin monks, the Croatians were a big winner with their slow motion demonstration that morphed into real time), but the highlight was the Cameroonian contingent.

While they probably weren't as experienced as the visitors from abroad, it was great to see them given a platform in their own country, and there was a wide range of ages, as well as many young girls taking part.

Dominique Saatenang was very encouraging (he provided the commentary throughout) and the audience was generally respectful (although disappointed by the lack of evident violence in the Tai Chi presentation). He did a great job supporting these small, independent martial arts schools.

Getting some shelter once the rain started.
At the end of the night all of the performers assembled to take a bow, the Saatenang began singing in Chinese with a Cameroonian woman (she sang in French). A Cameroonian friend of ours who worked in China for several years was able to help us translate. According to her summary, Saatenang sang that he was a Bamileké from Cameroon and he loves living in China, where he became a Shaolin monk. (It should be noted that the Shaolin monks left the stage promptly once the music started.)

Dominique Saatenang, crooner.

21 May 2018

Dschang and Foumban

Over the long Easter weekend, we made a return visit to Dschang and Foumban, reasoning that Foumban's attractions would remain open given that its residents are majority Muslim.

Along the way we stopped at Chutes d'Ekom Nkam, which we previously saw towards the end of the rainy season two years ago. While the waterfall wasn't as impressive (the rains are just beginning), it did mean that we could get a lot closer than last time.

October 2015.

March 2018.
In Dschang, we stayed at the Keleng Sous-Chefferie - a sub-chieftancy of Foto. Our host was the head of Keleng ("Je suis le chefferie," he said when we were calling to find their location). He then took us to Foto (the main chefferie in Dschang) where coincidentally there were a cultural festival and vendors/businesses fair.

Main entrance to Foto chefferie's palace, Dschang.
Entrance to new museum at Foto chefferie. The panther/leopard
represents power to many West Region communities.

The Petite Futé's description of Keleng was certainly accurate, as the chef happily welcomed us into the family compound, although as our friend noted this included "aggressive West African hospitality" and the occasional yelling at the women of the household. That said, he settled down after squiring us around Foto, and we had a nice evening eating and chatting with his family. The accommodation was quite comfortable (especially with the cool weather), and I'd highly recommend a visit.

"The chefferie: serving the development of the village.

Fire and ice (and palm wine)?

Dschang is reputedly the coldest town in Cameroon, so the French built a "centre climatique" to holiday at during World War II. We stopped by the centre for lunch after visiting the Musée des Civilisations again - an excellent compendium of information on the culture, history, and artifacts of four main Cameroonian settings: the forest, the coast, the savanna, and the mountains. It is also a great reference point for visiting the chieftancies that make up the "Route des Chefferies," including Bamendjinda, Bandjoun, and others.

Passing the chefferie of Bansoa on the road to Foumban: "Together we are stronger."
In Foumban we got to see the impressive progress being made on the new museum, which should be opening shortly. In the meantime, we were still able to visit the palace and see some of the remaining artifacts (some are already in the new museum).

March 2016.

March 2018.

The museum incorporates the main symbols of Foumban's Sultanate:
the two-headed snake ("Double power!") and the spider (wisdom).

After visiting the palace, we proceeded to check out the old war drum of the Bamoun people, kept in a special building next to the market. (The caretaker of the keys is a lady selling bras in the market.) Ali, who also showed us around during our last visit, explained that the drum was used to summon the ruler's warriors to battle.

Old rifles outside the Sultan's palace.

The war drum.
Afterwards we went up the minaret of Foumban's grand mosque. We had some nice views of the market below, although it was a little quiet on account of it being a Sunday.

Sultan Ibrahim Njoya, who shifted between Christianity and Islam as alliances dictated.
The Bamoun people are now mostly Muslim as he eventually settled on Islam.

Foumban market.

Foumban market with drum house.

29 April 2018

Buea and Mt. Cameroon

In March we traveled to Buea for the wedding of a friend/colleague's daughter. Despite it being just a couple of hours from Douala, cooler due to its elevation, and it possessing a number of historical buildings and sites, we had not yet made it to Cameroon's former capital (under the Germans). So we went for the wedding then I took a couple of days off work to climb Mt. Cameroon, west-central Africa's highest peak.

50th Anniversary Monument, Buea.
The principal site of interest is a monument at the top of town commemorating the 50th anniversary of Cameroon's independence and reunification. We were sure that the former colonial governor's residence, built in the style of a German castle and described in our three guidebooks as the Von Puttkamer castle/schloss, would be the key landmark. Yet Buea residents were mystified by references to Von Puttkamer, the schloss, and the old/German governor's residence. We eventually found it, and learned that it's not called “the prime minister's residence.”

The Prime Minister's residence, Buea.
Admission to the independence/reunification monument was quite reasonable – 200 CFA for entry, 500 CFA to take photos (although many Cameroonians present took more photos and selfies with our infant son than of the lesser landmarks). We wandered around the small park and took photos of the buildings bookending the monument – the schloss on one side, and Cameroon's first post office and a fountain commemorating Otto Von Bismarck on the other.

One of apparently many monuments created around the world shortly after
Bismarck died,  the Bismarck Fountain was built in 1899.

One puzzling note about the post office is that while it was founded by the Germans but was “taken over by the British in 1956”...? (Cameroon was split between the French and British after World War I.)

Old post office equipment.
The day after the wedding, I met up with my guide and porter to begin climbing Mt. Cameroon. Incidentally, the trailhead and Mt. Cameroon National Park's office are next door to the post office.

Thompson, of Ecotour Mt. Cameroon, told me quite a lot about the plant life as we passed through the farming zone and the buffer zone before reaching the boundary of the national park. As a sideline, Thompson also runs an organization, Global Hand Cameroon aimed at promoting conservation on the part of people in the Mt. Cameroon region.

Buffer zone forest between Upper Farms
area and Mt. Cameroon National Park.

Thompson noted that some trees are overused for firewood, when they could regrow if people only took branches. He said that Bakwerians (the Bakweri people are the original residents of Buea and the Mt. Cameroon area) are better at conserving natural resources as they know the plants, while newer arrivals (drawn to the region by its fertile land) may not understand as well.

Another plant he pointed out was Fako grass, which I remembered from a staff meeting when a colleague and Buea native jokingly suggested we use it to save money on medical supplies (it can be used as a coagulant). Fako is the local name for Mt. Cameroon.

Mist/clouds making their way up Mt. Cameroon.

Cocoyams are the main crop around Mt. Cameroon, and people come from far afield to buy yams (including from Gabon and Nigeria). Thompson worked as a porter starting in 2007 and has been a guide since 2011.

View of Buea from Hut 2.
Thompson also has started dabbling in beekeeping, and our porter asked him all about it and it was interesting to listen along to the conversation, with my limited understanding of pidgin English aided by some (basic) background knowledge on bees.

Bar/restaurant; bathing spot (Hut 2, Mt. Cameroon).

Our porter recently graduated from a high school in Buea, and has remained in town doing odd jobs. He's from Bangem (on the Southwest side of Mt. Manengouba). Bangem's a smaller town and there've been clashes with gendarmes (over the “anglophone crisis”) so he's based in Buea despite not having any family there. He asked me if there was any “benefit” to going up to the summit to Mt. Cameroon, i.e. What is the point? He had previously earned money carrying construction sand up to Hut 2, the base camp where hikers can spend the night, at a rate of 10,000 CFA (approximately U.S.$20) for two bags totaling 17 kgs (40 lbs.). He had joined a few other hikes, but hadn't gone to the summit (supplies are left at Hut 2). All told, it took us about 6 hours to get from the trailhead (at 1,100 metres) to Hut 2 (at 2,800 metres).

Map showing our path from Buea to the summit.
Hut 2 is also known as Fako Mountain Lodge.
There are several people working at Hut 2. They stay up there for shifts of 2-3 weeks before going back down to Buea for leave. There are several new cabins for tourists and guides, as well as a few camping platforms for tents. I'm glad I didn't elect to take a tent up as it was very cold and even the cabins were chilly at night. There is now a graded access road to Hut 2, so food, drink and building materials are no longer brought up by hand.

Hut 2. Limbe is obscured by the clouds to the left.
From Hut 2 we had some nice views down to Limbe and Buea, and at night you could see the lights in Douala. Thompson explained that September is one of the most popular times of year to climb Mt. Cameroon – even though it is deep in the rainy season, you can see quite far when the rains clear (e.g. to Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea).

An active volcano (its last eruption was in 2000), Mt. Cameroon is part of a (mostly extinct) volcanic mountain range encompassing Sao Tome & PrincipeBioko Island, Mt. Manengouba, and Mt. Oku, among other peaks.

Volcanic sand on the path up to the summit.
The next day we continued up to the summit (at 4,095 m). This was a decidedly less talkative trip, probably on account of my fatigue and consequent slow pace. Conditions were cold and windy throughout, with a bit of drizzle being blown about. As the summit was quite exposed (everyone's hands were freezing) yet had no visibility, we began our descent after a few photos.

The summit of Mt. Cameroon!

Thompson explained that business has declined a lot since the start of the anglophone crisis nearly two years ago. (In short: many teachers and lawyers in the anglophone Northwest and Southwest regions went on strike protesting marginalization by the central government, leading to a prolonged stalemate and some clashes between civilians and the police and army.) While Buea and Mt. Cameroon are perfectly safe, blanket warnings from western governments against travelling to Northwest and Southwest Cameroon meant that I encountered six other tourists (two individuals, one group) during my three days and two nights in Mt. Cameroon National Park.

Descending from Hut 2 to Buea.

After a second night in Hut 2, we went back down to Buea. This may have been the most difficult part of the trip, as the largely direct route up and especially down Mt. Cameroon was quite hard on the knees. A few slips notwithstanding, the descent was uneventful. From the trailhead I caught a taxi back down the hill and then found a quick clando (private car working as a taxi) to Douala.

Tasty berries in Upper Farm.

View of Mt. Cameroon from our apartment in Douala.