Monday, June 23, 2008

travel complications

I want to share how travel here in Cameroon can be more complicated than it is back home in the US. Last week, our friends Caspar and Char arrived from Switzerland. Being complete francophones (this beautiful word means French-speaking, in case I haven't mentioned that before), they landed in Douala on the coast, found a bus to take them the 3+ hour ride to Yaounde, and found our neighborhood. There, they were supposed to meet Ann. They had her number and mine. The phone network in our neighborhood chose that time to simply quit working; Ann had a "limited service" message on her phone, couldn't use it, and more to the point, our friends couldn't call her. So they called me. The plan was for Ann to meet them, so I was across town, an hour away by cab. There was nothing else to do but drop my work, cancel meetings, and come home to meet our friends, since they had no idea where to go, and couldn't get into the house even if they could find it, since Julia who works at the house had already left. And sure enough, about the time I finally got back to our neighborhood, Ann's phone had kicked in again and they had found each other, I had come all that way for no good reason. It was pretty frustrating for both of us.

Today, a week later, Ann's folks fly into Yaounde. Our plan was to meet them at the airport here. But no, today is the day that some dignitaries arrive for a big economic meeting of African countries (if I understand the explanation, anyway), so -- the roads are blocked. I got up to work, ran some errands, and I couldn't get home again. My taxi driver told me the road was blocked, but took me as far as downtown, where we couldn't get any further. So I won't be meeting the in-laws at the airport.

The roads are blocked all the way to the airport, but apparently some of the side roads are open. So Ann and Paul, Julia and Isaac's nephew who has their car tonight to help us out, are working out how to get to the airport. Ann called around, and found out that the Air France flight her parents are on may just keep the passengers on the plane until the dignitaries clear the airport.

Also, when I started heading home, it started raining. And I forgot my umbrella but had my computer with me. That one is entirely my fault; I need to find a plastic pancho to stick in my computer bag for future weather surprises.

So we'll figure something out, and Ann's folks are levelheaded and seasoned travelers, and will no doubt just hang out at the airport til we turn up.

But it seems like it's always something.

It's a lot harder here to labor under the illusion that you are in control of your own life. I was chatting about the situation today with our coworker Guy, and mentioned to him that it seems like Cameroonians don't get upset about things like this. He said no, they don't, there's no reason to get angry about it. I wonder how long I'd have to live here to cultivate this? Ann has more of this than I do.

UPDATE: here's a quick news item from the Post in Buea about what caused tonight's road delay:

Yaounde Hosts 9th CEMAC Heads of state summit
By Orock Eta

Heads of State of the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa zone (CEMAC), are converging in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon. The 9th Summit of CEMAC will be holding on the 24th & 25th June 2008. Leaders of six countries amongst others will be part of this event. President Theodoro Obiang- Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, Omar Bongo Odimba of Gabon, Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Congo, Francois Bozize of the Central Africa Republic, Idriss Deby Itno of Chad and Paul Biya of Cameroon will be in attendance.CEMAC was created in 1994 to collectively develop the human and natural resources of the sub region for the wellbeing of its people. President Paul Biya has been receiving guests for this occasion.

Looks like they might continue for a day or two.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Compo-Ma'an National Park with Char and Caspar

Our friends Charlotte and Caspar arrived for a visit last week. Charlotte was Ann's roommate in San Francisco for awhile. Caspar is her Dutch biologist husband. They live in Switzerland, and we hope to visit them there, maybe on our way home in October.

Charlotte and Caspar are seasoned travelers and speak French fluently. We tagged along for their visit to a national park in the southwest corner of Cameroon for a few days. They took off this morning for the southwest. We stayed in Yaounde to meet Ann's parents, who arrive tomorrow for a ten-day visit. We'll be headed up to the cool and mountainous northwest with them on Thursday.

The trip

The park we visited is called Campo-Ma'an. It lies along the river that borders Equatorial Guinea, in the forested part of Cameroon. We left Yaounde on Wednesday afternoon on the bus to Kribi on the coast. The next morning, Thursday, we took a cab three hours to Campo town, found the park forestry office described in our guidebook, and arranged a park visit with guides. We stayed at the San Tropez hotel in Compo town, in a spartan concrete room with a cold-water shower and an oscillating floor fan. We set up our mosquito net, and since the windows were unscreened, Caspar and Char bought a net for themselves at the town store, although they're also on antimalarials for their short trip here. That night we found dinner and some beers on the veranda of the local bar, where we watched Germany and Portugal play football on satellite TV with half the town.

Friday we rode motorcycle taxis to Campo Beach, hopped in a boat, and rode an hour or two up the river to a guard post at the park. We picked up an armed soldier guard and hiked around the park for several hours, until the path gave out. I kept thinking on the hike that the forest looked a lot like Michigan. It turns out that this we were hiking on a former German plantation. So this was second-growth forest a little over a hundred years old, which is what you see in Michigan's lower peninsula where Ann and I both grew up. The plants themselves were not the same, of course. Much of the forest here consisted of moderately-sized rubber trees and giant bamboo, neither of which are native to Cameroon, plus lots of brush. We saw lots of birds, some small wildlife, flowers, and a few monkeys high in the trees. We were stalking forest elephants, and saw traces and some tracks in the mud, but never found the elephants themselves.

Before returning we took the boat to see the nearby falls on the opposite side of the river. We ate at a guest center the park office runs on the beach in Compo Beach, then took motorcycle taxis back to our hotel, where we found more cold beers and well-attended European satellite TV football on the veranda (Turkey won). Saturday we took a cab back to Kribi where we caught a bus for Yaounde.

Wednesday: the bus ride to Kribi

Ann made a friend in the row ahead of us on the way to Kribi.

Thursday: Kribi to Compo, and arranging our park visit

Our cab from Kribi to Compo town on Thursday. This is our driver Mark, Ann, and Charlotte. Mark was going to take us back to Kribi on Saturday too, but apparently (per our new driver) Mark got drunk on Friday night and partly demolished a bridge with his cab, so he sent a friend in another car on Saturday.

Another shot of the ride from Kribi to Campo, to show the size of the trees a bit. The entire road was lined with forest like this, with the occasional house, village or pygmy encampment. (Pygmy is what people all say here, and what the driver said in this case, although the people in question prefer to be called by their people group, such as Baka.)

The road from Kribi to Campo town. It was early, so I was still a little bleary and not smiling in spite of my coffee, but this is a good picture to give you some idea of what the road looks like. Once you leave Kribi it's all dirt. This is a pretty smooth section; the potholes and ruts in some places slowed our cab to a careful crawl.

Mark, Caspar, Ann and Charlotte on the way from Kribi to Compo.

The ubiquitous .65-liter bottle of beer, about a pint and a half in the US, along with a satisfied customer at the end of a long, dusty, hot day.

Caspar, the forestier Jean-Marc who set up our visit to the park, and me.

Friday: Compo-Ma'an National Park

We had breakfast here in the town of Compo Beach before setting out on the boat. That's the river in the picture, and on the opposite side is Cameroon's neighbor to the south, the country of Equatorial Guinea.

The river at Campo Beach, looking out to the Atlantic where the waves roll in.

One the river. The boatman's shy son Paul is at left, and me and Ann.

Near its mouth at the Atlantic, the river is lined with mangrove. As the water gets less salty, they fade out and are replaced by pandalouse, a primitive plant with similar roots, and large grassy-looking leaves.

Aerial roots along the river.

Ghyslaine, one of the park rangers, who accompanied us on the hike.

Our pilot, whose boat we hired for the trip to the park.

Char and Caspar. To Caspar's right is our "guard", although an armed soldier from the park's guardpost where we landed also came with us.

Riverbank. All of it was thickly forested like this, except for the very occasional clearing. The trees in the background are really high; my guess is that they were well over a hundred feet.

On the boat to the park.

Ann and me in the boat.

Char and Caspar with the pilot and our guard.

There's a toad about the size of an apple in the middle of this picture. He was hard to spot on the trail, too. I only saw him because he hopped into the trail mud the minute I walked past him.

There was a small tributary of the river that crisscrossed our path. This was where the soldier knew the elephants had been, and we saw tracks and trace several times, and even hiked off the path and into the mud once, but didn't find the elephants. This was not a surprise or much of a disappointment, since they are notoriously elusive. If you want to see big animals, it's much easier to do so at a savannah park like Waza in the north of Cameroon. But there are elephants, chimps, mandrills, pangolins and other mammals in the park. I wondered whether they were sitting quietly and watching us as we stamped through their forest.

The yellow there is Ann's shirt. This gives you some idea of the scale of the larger trees, and how thick the undergrowth was.

Our guard is chopping a bit at a big rubber tree, to show us the sap.

A termite house, about a foot high. We saw these every so often, as well as one or two termite mounds, and some ball-shaped termite houses in the trees. We didn't see any actual termites, but did see lots of ants. They were everywhere, and where they swarmed on the path we had to run through, then stomp them off. Inevitably, a few got under your clothes and bit you, leading to some brief impromptu dances. Every so often, someone in our party would cry "fourmi!", which is French for ant, and either point at the ground, start running, or hop around and smack their legs. The bites weren't too frequent or too bad; they hurt far less than a bee sting.

Charlotte and Caspar on the path.

Another toad.

Two butterflies mating. This and most of the other critter pictures are from Caspar's camera.

Some of the giant Chinese bamboo that was all over the place. This stuff was maybe fifty feet high. Some friends of mine were challenging me to built a dirigible out of bamboo while in Cameroon, Gilligan's-island style; this would be the thing to use.

Our soldier guard helps Ann across a tributary. This was an unusually open spot.

A closeup of the rubber sap seeping from our guard's small illustrative cut in the tree.

Me and Ann in the forest.

Didier, the armed soldier (he carried an assault rifle) who came with us. He was a friendly young guy who led the way. When we left, he asked to come along on the short ride we took to see the waterfalls on the Equatorial Guinea side of the river.

The falls, loud and a few feet high. They don't look too big here, but we didn't get that close.

Another shot of the falls, further out.

The boat.

Us in the boat in the afternoon sun, heading back from the park.

Char on the way back, in her rock star sunglasses.

Our boat's engine gave out a bit short of our landing, so we hiked back through a residential quarter of Campo Beach from where the pilot paddled to shore.

The Atlantic in the evening, where we had dinner at the eco-reserve after visiting the park.

We took motorcycle taxis ("mototaxis" in French) back to our hotel after dinner. This is me and my driver speeding down a dirt road. No helmets, of course. There almost never are here. The dirt roads and 125-cc engines mean we never went faster than about 25mph. All the mototaxis are Chinese.

The view ahead on the mototaxi ride. That little blur on the road ahead is Caspar. I also took a shot behind me, where Ann and Char were sharing a ride, but I missed.

Our arrival back at the hotel, settling up with the drivers. That light-colored building across the street is the verandah where we sat and had dinner on Thursday, and watched the Turks win a football game on Friday night.

Ann, Ghyslaine and Char back at the hotel.

Saturday: back to Yaounde

This is what a bus ride looks like. We bought five tickets for the four of us on each bus ride, and our thoroughly francophone friends, bless them, made sure we got to sit together in a row all by ourselves. These rows are built for four people, so the bus companies cram five into each row, plus any number of free-riding children on laps. So people routinely sit partly on top of each other like this. Nobody seems to mind in the least.

Char and Caspar fly out of Douala, not Yaounde, so we won't be seeing them again in Cameroon. They're off to see more parks, headed to Limbe today, then to the foothills of Mount Cameroon, and then to the ring road in the northwest.

Monday, June 16, 2008

New Adventures in Hair

As many of you know, I enjoy an occasional drastic change to the color of my hair. But here in Africa, the more common practice for women is to drastically change the style of their hair. I certainly couldn't resist, so this past Saturday, I embarked upon a new adventure in hair!
BEFORE: "Oh Beckaaaay, what ever shall I do with this shaggy 70's hair of mine?"
I called over Charlotte (left) and she came with her friend Davina (right) and a few packs of different colored fake hair. Mmmmmm. After some pondering, I turned down the black and the brown in favor of a purple and magenta combination. And so they started in to work...
Here is the hair itself, draped over the back of the couch. They prepared it, cut it to the right length, and eventually arranged it into numerous small portions with a bit of each color, ready to braid.
Four and a half hours and a couple of movies later, I was lookin' pretty fine, with long thick hair the likes of which I've never had before! Yes, it hurt at times, but they worked really quickly and did a great job. Here they are finishing up the last few braids, just before they tied it all back and dipped the ends in near-boiling water.
AFTER: "Hmmm, this hairstyle and color is not entirely unlike that of DJ Adrian from Bootie!"
Thanks ladies! I have been greatly enjoying my new big hair, and have not yet taken it out of the convenient ponytail as of this writing. (Will probably do that later today, and put it in a different style.) People say it can last for several weeks, so we'll see how it goes. I'm already scheming about colors for the next time I get this done!