The Monkeynut does Cameroon

Chapter IV: an unpromising beginning.

We bought our tickets earlier this summer and, as usual, decided to go for the cheap ones that are full of restrictive conditions listed in great detail in appendix Q. I made my usual argument to Louise - hey! things almost always go as planned! Sure if we need to make changes after buying the tickets, we'll have to pay a bundle, but when you divide that surcharge among all the other trips we took when we didn't need to make changes, it will still turn out to be the cheaper option. As we checked out the internet sites, we quickly saw that Cameroon is a pricey destination, with most of the big airlines charging over $2k per ticket, even for the most heavily restricted fares. Eventually, we discovered that Turkish Airlines is significantly lower than the rest and that they fly from Houston to Yaounde with one change in Istanbul. We flew Turkish a few years back for our vacation in Turkey and had no complaints, so we quickly plunked down our money, which was around $2,700 for the two of us. Because the restrictions were so draconian (sick or dead? we don't care), we also bought travel insurance for another three hundred or so. What could go wrong?

Well, a few days before take-off, I started getting fearsome headaches and stiff necks. Nothing a few pills couldn't fix, I thought and in fact my symptoms were much reduced by Saturday the 23rd, the day before take-off. We planned to drive to Houston first thing the next day to visit Louise's relatives there, so we could have a low-stress leisurely drive to the airport later in the day.

On Sunday morning the 24th, I woke up with the mother of all headaches and a neck that could not be moved a single degree without additional pain. Louise drove me to the Seton Hospital ER where they gave me a CT scan of brain and an MRI of my neck. The MRI showed a joint swelling which the doctor figured was the origin of my problems, so he gave me shots of a pain killer and anti-inflammatory and sent off prescriptions to our pharmacy for additional oral pain killers and anti-inflammatories. But he didn't think much of my embarking on an 11-hour trip that same day, so Louise immediately starting calling Turkish airlines to change our flights.

This of course is when things really started to head south.

It was now around noon, so we had plenty of time to change the flight before take-off and switch it to Tuesday instead. But the first thing we were told was that we would have to do all of that in person before the close of business in New York. We explained that we were in Austin, and we were stuck here for the moment because I had been advised by the doctor not to travel by car, bus, train or plane. Sorry, buddy - that makes you a no-show, back to GO and do not collect $200! We then spent much of the rest of the day talking with agents in a call center somewhere in India, trying to get some guidance on what we should do next. We briefly considered doping me up and driving to Houston to catch our original flight, but it turned out that the pharmacy we asked the doctor to send the prescriptions is closed on Sunday, so we'd have to wait until Monday for the heavy-duty drugs to arrive. We soon realized the logical trap in concluding that an airline was good if we had no complaints; a much better measure is evaluating how they reacted when we did have complaints. In this respect, Turkish Airlines proved to be quite unsatisfactory. There is nothing intrisically wrong with using a call center in India, providing that the people answering your call are well-trained in providing assistance. Almost all of the agents failed dismally - they spoke too quietly for us to understand them, they seem to be searching deperately for an opportunity to say 'hold, please' in order to shove you back in the elevator music queue. And of course when that happened, there was a strong probability that the call would just be dropped; if another agent picked it up, they knew nothing about our issues or what the previous agent had told us. I call the travel insurance line - they said 'well, if you are considered a no-show...' and I could hear them sadly shaking their head.

After flight time had come and passed, we had still not found a satisfactory resolution, so we switched to plan B - take-out pizza, beer and some trash on the TV, after which I took more pills and crashed. Louise, however, was made of sterner stuff and got up in the wee hours to bash on the call center some more. And, around 3 a.m., she was able to get us reservations for Tuesday. We still didn't rate a confirmation email because our original flight was still in the computer, so we are still taking it on faith that the new flight will be there, but Louise had a good feeling about the guy she dealt with and we were cautiously optimistic. The only remaining hurdle seemed to be that we had to actually buy the tickets in Houston on Tuesday before 5 p.m. New York time. No problem, right?

On Tuesday, my neck felt much better and we drove down to Houston in the early afternoon, leaving plenty of time to buy the tickets and get on the plane. I dropped Louise at the airport with the luggage so I could park at a long-term lot and take the shuttle back. It turned out that Turkish Airlines hadn't quite finished playing with us - when Louise got to their desk, there was no-one there. Where are the agents? she asked. Oh, they don't usually show up until 5, she was told, which of course would be after the deadline we were given. Once again, Louise geared up for battle and was able somehow to contact by phone a representative of the airline who was in some other part of the airport and persuade them to come at once to take our money. They came and they took, after which the clouds parted and joy reigned throughout the land.

Chapter V: what and where is Cameroon?

Here is Cameroon in a nutshell. It is tall and skinny and stretches all the way from the Republic of the Congo in the south to Chad in the north, thereby encompassing all kinds of ethnic groups, climates and landscapes, earning it the name "Africa in miniature". It was first colonized by the Germans, but after WWI, it was divided into two League of Nations mandates, administered by France in the north and Britain in the south. Each part achieved independence in the early 1960ies and they then combined to form a single country, although each part still retained the language of its former colonial power. Add to that the 200 or so local languages and you have a veritable tower of Babel, although the colonial languages are widely used. But importantly, there are no major tribal loyalties that trump loyalty to the country as a whole. Population of the country is about 20 million and life expectancy at birth is over 50 years. The majority of the population is Christian, with a significant minority of Moslems, mostly in the northern parts. It shares a long and porous western border with Nigeria, and it is believed that Boko Harram may use some of the northern parts as a refuge; for that reason, the Peace Corps has closed all the posts in the far north.

Politically, it has many of the trappings of democracy, although elections are sporadic and generally considered to be manipulated by the government. Paul Biya has been president for quite a while and is now in his mid eighties. Don't hold your breath waiting for him to be replaced; the power of the president over the military and all parts of the government is formidable. There doesn't seem to be any oil or other great natural resources to be exploited, but in other countries, like Nigeria, having natural resources that are highly concentrated in certain parts of the country can be a cause for unhappiness and conflict. Anyway, for whatever reason, the country has enjoyed high political and social stability relative to other African countries and as a result there has been a decent amount of economic development and a relatively high level of wages although there is a large segment of the population that still relies on subsistence farming.

Toni is stationed in the Western region, which is in the hill country and has a somewhat cooler average temperature than the cities in the south. She lives in a small town, Bafang, which is about a five hour drive on a good day from Yaounde, the capital city. (Just southwest of Bafoussam on the map.) It is predominantly French-speaking and follows the French educational system. However, there are bilingual schools that teach both the French and English systems, which sounds weird to me, since it involves maintaining two separate sets of classes, one in each language rather than trying to cultivate bilingualism among the students.

August and September are in the rainy season. But Toni assured us that it does not rain all the time and that in certain ways it is preferable to the dry season, which can be very dusty. We brought rain jackets but actually ended up hardly wearing them.

Chapter VI: off to Bafang.

After a long but uneventful flight, we landed in Yaounde, the capital city of Cameroon. The local time was around 11 p.m. Wednesday night, and as we left the customs area, we were greeted by our two daughters with huge smiles on their faces - what a delight! (Madeleine had flown out from New York on Sunday, arriving Monday night, so she and Toni had been doing some sightseeing while waiting for us to arrive.) They had a taxi outside - an ancient Toyota that the four of us could barely squeeze into with our luggage. But the wheels turned and we soon found ourselves at the Hilton, a luxurious, Western-style hotel. After some excited chattering, our energy level dropped to zero and we tucked ourselves into bed and fell asleep.

Our plan was to spend the first day in Yaounde dealing with jet-lag and then head north, first to Bafia, to meet Toni's host family with whom she stayed during her initial training, and subsequently to her post, Bafang. Yaounde seemed like a bustling city, with crowds of people coming and going and construction cranes all over the place. Our first departure from the hotel started poorly, with a juvenile beggar insinuating himself into our group and a creepy young guy singing a love song to Toni. But they eventually left us alone, and that was the only incident of that type we encountered. We went to a supermarket and they had all kinds of fancy goods, including some good-looking cheeses that Toni purchased. (Cheese is not popular in Cameroon and Toni cannot buy it in Bafang.) We also encountered a rat-catcher, carrying a bucket adorned with the bodies of his victims - an impressive bit of advertizing! After our stroll, we returned to the Hilton, sat by the pool for a while and then went upstairs to the roof bar for happy hour. Finally, we had an all-you-can-eat buffet dinner at the Hilton restaurant, which had so many wonderful cheeses and desserts that we had to drag Toni bodily away from it or she would still be there today.

View from the Hilton Construction in Yaounde Toni by mural
More mural ("Ask not what your town has done for you...") Happy hour at the Hilton

Friday morning, we prepared to depart Yaounde. I had some work to complete by the end of August which I had hoped would be done before we left since I had access to the internet at the Hilton. However, there were some issues that had not quite been resolved before our departure, so I crossed my fingers and decided to entrust the completion of the project to Toni's rather sketchy internet at Bafang. Toni had engaged a taxi for the day, so we stuffed all our luggage into its modest trunk and piled in. Our plan was first to stop in Bafia, where Toni had done her training and had stayed with a host family for several weeks. They had treated her like their own and Toni had only wonderful things to say about her famille Camerounaise, so we wanted to meet them and express our gratitude. Then we would drive on to Bafang, after which the driver would head back to Yaounde.

The trip was .. interesting. The road was a basic two-lane road, mostly in pretty good shape. Everyone, including our driver, Etienne, drove like maniacs, so that I found it easier to gaze pensively off to the side rather than straight ahead at the near certainty of oncoming death. Every car we were in for the duration of the trip had a cracked windshield. Few had seatbelts and many lacked other items considered by effete Americans as essentials, such as door latches or window cranks. In some places, there were deep potholes that required the driver to manoeuver around them. There were also frequent stops, either for tolls or to be questioned by various types of security personnel - paramilitaries, police, local officials. Each stop was accompanied by huge, even mountainous speed bumps. (When I remarked on this, Toni replied - see, I told you I lived in the hill country.) As soon as we slowed down for the speed bump, locals would rush the car to sell us stuff like bags of peanuts or fruit. My initial reaction to this was irritation, but at some point we realized that we were quite hungry and that this was a pretty good service.

The security guys were mostly interested in checking Etienne's papers. They also gave him a hard time about various rules he was breaking - having a fire extinguisher with an expired date, not having a reflective warning sign in case he had to stop at night. At one stop, they asked him to follow them into their hut for a while; he emerged later looking quite unhappy. A shake-down, I concluded. How much did they take you for - I asked. Etienne replied - one thousand francs. Whoa! That sounds pretty steep. But then I remembered that one thousand francs was only $2. Still...

We arrived in Bafia in time for lunch. Toni's host parents were ecstatic to see her - Toni's only disappointment was that some of their kids she had become attached to were not there. On the other hand, there was a new arrival, from some branch of the family, who now lived at their house in order to attend the Bafia schools. The house was immaculate and we were made most welcome while final preparations were made for lunch. Then I was in the back watching Mama cook when someone said - oops! The plantains are burned. I slipped delicately away; shortly thereafter, Papa came and suggested that perhaps we would like a tour of Bafia? Absolutely, we said, so we first visited a nearby school attended by some of their kids, then his office (he is an administrator at the school district). Then, with a note of desperation, he wondered if we would like to see the hospital? We settled instead for a photo opp at a nearby park and then his phone rang and he told us with obvious relief that lunch was ready. Back we went and had a suberb Cameroon meal, with chicken cooked in herbs, plantains and some very tasty greens, along with some extremely potent hot sauce. We (including Etienne) ate splendidly, then said our goodbyes and got back on the road for Bafang.

Back in school Mighty Cameroon lion Group by statue
The Papas USA and Cameroon united

The next leg of our trip was mostly like the first - alternating terror on the road with abrupt deceleration for the road stops and tedious interrogations by officials. One of these insisted that all foreign residents of the taxi produce passports, which I was not prepared for and had to fish it out of my luggage. However, there were three sinister new developments - first, because of our lengthy tour of Bafia, it was already getting dark; second, it was starting to rain; third, Etienne missed a turn and we ended up going on to Bafang on another road. This other road was in worse shape than the one we had been on all day and had some pretty large potholes. These were now filling up with rain, so that in the dark it became increasingly difficult to guage whether the holes were just modest depressions or car-eating chasms. We pressed on, hoping for the best, but occasionally with loud crashes as we ran into a big one. And then, inevitably, we got a flat. Etienne pulled to the side of the road and deployed the fine new reflective warning sign he had just aquired. We all pulled the luggage out of the trunk, took out the spare and jack, jacked up the car, removed the old wheel and put on the spare, redeployed the luggage, all in a time suitable for the Indianapolis 500. But we still had a ways to go and, about 12 miles from Bafang, another tire blew. Tow truck? I wondered. But no, it seemed that there were no tow trucks, and so we ended up grinding our way into Bafang on the wheel rim. We had all been holding our breath since the second flat and so there was a great sigh of relief when Toni's residence came in sight. We were greeted enthusiastically by Bruce, Toni's new kitten; Madeleine cooked up some pasta, after which we headed for our beds while Etienne slept on the couch.

The fatal tire Etienne prepares to retun to Yaounde Bruce

The next day started slowly as we adjusted to our new living situation. There is no running hot water, so you have to take a bucket bath, a cold shower or nothing at all. That first morning we all took bucket baths, but it takes a long time to heat water on the stove and then haul it up to the bathroom, so later on we all tended to pick options 2 or 3. Toni's roommate, Luca, was out of town so Louise and I were able to use his bed and mosquito net. Madeleine slept on a mattress on the floor and was exposed to the mosquitos, but we actually didn't see many of them while we were there. All the rooms are small but cheerfully furnished. Amenities are minimal - for example, there is only one electrical outlet on the second floor - but in the volunteer community, the house qualifies as "posh corps", meaning that many of the other volunteers have to make do with much more primitive conditions. In addition, Toni's quality of life soared when Luca moved in, since he brought not only himself but also a fridge, a washing machine and an internet key with him. What - no cappuccino machine?

When we were finally sorted out, Toni proposed a trip into town. This is a twenty minute walk or you can grab your helmet and walk a little way to where some motorcyclists are milling around, waiting to take you where you want to go. We decided to take the moto, and, despite some initial difficulties getting on and off, it worked out pretty well for us. (The Peace Corps provides the helmets and has a strict rule against riding without one, although relatively few 'roonians bother with them - a trait they share with riders in our great state of Texas.) Once in town, we realized how well-integrated Toni is into the life of the town. As she walked down the street, she would constantly be smiling and greeting people in the rather complicated fashion of the 'roon - "Bonjour Maman [or Papa] - ca va comment? ..." There is a huge amount of hand-shaking - one guy she introduced us to shook my hand at least half a dozen times in an absent-minded kind of way as we talked. Calling people you meet Maman or Papa shows respect; calling them Grandmother or Grandfather shows more respect; God knows where it all ends. Somehow, I had expected to be the object of indifference or even hostility, but the reality was that I felt comfortable and among friends. I think it took Toni a little while before she reached this level, but as she was introducing us to practically everyone in town, we felt the warmth right away.

Toni, like most PC volunteers, had purchased cloth from local merchants and had it made into clothing for her. It sounds kind of extravagant, but the total cost of a dress might be 10 to 15 dollars, so it is hard to resist. There were many sellers of the colorful fabric known as pagne, which comes in a multitude of bright colors and patterns. Louise bought some to make into baggy trousers and Madeleine to make into a dress and jacket. I was urged to follow, but declined. We then went in search of a tailor and the desired tailoring of each garment was recorded. It all seemed a little casual, but in fact it worked out quite well for everyone.

Our transportation Buying pagne No pissing
Our tailors

That first evening in Bafang, I learned an important fact that Toni had to explain to me. When you say to a Cameroonian "you must visit us in Texas - you'll love it!", you are actually offering to pay for that person to fly to the US and for all their accomodations. We went for dinner to a bar run by Rafael, an ex-Cameroonian soccer player who was snapped up by an Italian soccer team and spent several years playing in Europe until an injury ended his career. He sat down with us and he and I had a long chat. At some point in that chat, I said "you must visit us in Texas - you'll love it!". He seemed gratified and then said that he would send me copies of his passport and other papers. I was confused - what would I do with those? He explained that I could get started on the paperwork for his visa. Fortunately, that is when Toni stepped in to explain my error and (I hope) to clear things up with Rafael. Otherwise, I have a sad mental picture of him and his family with their bags packed, still waiting for the tickets to arrive.

We also had one of the tastiest meals of our trip at Rafael's. His bar does not serve food, but you can arrange for someone to cook food for you and bring it in. At Toni's urging, Louise and I arranged for grilled perch and it was absolutely wonderful. We were instructed that the correct etiquette was to eat it with our fingers, which we did. Finger-licking good!

Another excellent omen was revealed at Rafael's when Louise removed the cap off her beer bottle and discovered that she was a winner! (Of a free beer.) She quickly drank the beer and ordered her free one - removed the cap and discovered that she was a winner again! To prevent her mother from excessive intoxication, Toni discreetly removed the second winning beercap to be used at some time in the future by her.

Good omen or not, Toni's internet was not proving very resillient. I finally finished the model that has to go out to investors by the end of the month and I was able to send it to the head investment banker, with a note that I planned to distribute it right away. However, for whatever reason, I was unable to send it out at all after that, so I just asked the investment banker to send it out for me. It was a great relief to be able to forget about it and get on with the serious business of vacationing. Thanks to Christine, Jeff and John for getting it done for me!

It is interesting to listen to the various sounds of Africa, particularly when lying in bed wondering whether you will ever get to sleep or not. Phase one is the Twilight Bark, as documented in the great film classic 101 Dalmatians. One dog barks; another responds; others pitch in and pretty soon it is Bedlam out there. Gradually, though, the messages are sent and acknowledged and it is quiet again. Phase two lasts for the bulk of the night - quiet, although occasionally interrupted by nearby radios played loud and family disputes. Phase three is the Morning Cluck - even though it is still dark, all the roosters and hens start waking up and chatting with each other. Consciousness returns to the jungle.

Of course, we could not avoid the odd digestive incident. One day, we went to have lunch at the goat lady, which is where Toni last Thanksgiving bravely nibbled on a goat's hoof and spent the next few hours regretting it. I had a porkchop and it was very tasty. Toni then took us to a place in town where they serve palm wine. They tap a palm in the morning and gather the fermented sap that runs out. This is served to afficionados during the day; by the end of the day, any remaining wine is discarded, so they don't need to mark the bottles with the year of the harvest or even the day. It was not a great hit with us - it was sour and not particularly flavorful - although Toni likes it. But not long after drinking it, I sensed a gurgling in my innards. Fortunately, they had a bathroom right there; unfortunately, it was a hole in the ground. I dealt with as best I could, although I'm glad I wasn't the next person to use it. Just then, Louise sensed a similar gurgling, and followed my example. (Sorry, my love!) We then went home and spent several hours being unhappy until we remembered that we were carrying some pills to use for just that purpose. We each took a pill and within an hour our bodies had pretty much returned to normal. Whoa! Good job American pharma!

Chapter XII: to Bana.

On Tuesday (the day after Labor Day), we walked into town and did a few errands before getting a taxi to take us to the resort at Bana, where we were planning on getting some serious rest and relaxation. The town of Bana is only a half hour or so from Bafang and is perched up on a high ridge. Near the top, there is a small cobbled road that plunges into a little side valley of breath-taking beauty and this is where the resort is. We decided to rent a family suite, which is a stand-alone building with one huge bedroom/living room (for Mama and Papa), a decent-sized double room for the girls and a bathroom with hot water and all the amenities. There is a restaurant, a bar, a swimming pool, a fishing pool (in case we want to catch our own dinner) and a spa. As we looked around, we suddenly realized that we were the only people there who look like guests. We strolled around and admired the close-cropped bushes and lovely flowers. We went to the restaurant to have a bite for lunch - it has a fine menu, although most of the items turned out to be unavailable. We were the only customers. It is an odd feeling - perhaps this is how royalty feels when they rent the whole place just to make sure that they don't get all those pesky requests for autographs. Or the feeling you might get if you mistakenly booked your vacation during the month when the volcano is expected to erupt and destroy the town. (It also fees a bit like the roach motel - the taxi brings us in, but there's no way I am going to be able to climb out of this valley.)

The afternoon was a bit drizzly and there was some quite serious rain in the evening. One fascinating result of all the rain is that, the next morning, there were termite wings everywhere, including on our bedroom floor. Toni told us that the day after a hard rain, many stalls in the market will be selling termites, although I was secretly glad that we were nowhere near the market.

In the evening, after fine dining at the restaurant, we settled down in our room to watch The Princess Bride. Unfortunately, Toni did not have an adapter to allow her to charge her computer battery and just at the moment the six-fingered man is about to be skewered by Inigo Montoya, the battery expired and we had to wait until the morning to watch the ending. Talk about a cliff-hanger!

On Wednesday, we decided to stay another night, so we had the whole day to lounge around. The rain had stopped, but it was mostly cloudy, which persuaded me that I needn't worry about sunburn. The womenfolk had made appointments at the spa for massages and pedicures, and I sat by the pool. When the womenfolk returned, I thought, well, why not? Why shouldn't I have my body pampered too? So I signed up for a pedicure. It was an interesting experience - I had some pretty robust calluses, but she had cheese-graters and sandpaper, so we were evenly matched. When she started on my left foot, however, I felt that she had the upper hand - so much so that it became quite painful. Later on, I realized that just my left foot had become quite sunburned, so that the skin was much more sensitive than the right foot. After a few hours, my left foot looked like it had been dragged through a thorn bush and it took another week before the scabs came off and my foot regained its former splendor.

Finally, on Thursday we settled up and got a taxi to take us back to Bafang. The driver was a hoot - he pointed at a little moped ahead of us with three people riding it and said - Cameroonian Harley Davidson! When we arrived back at Toni's, I asked to take his picture and he said - by my Cameroonian Cadillac!

Louise admires our room Termite wings by our door Up the hill
Toni by the pool My feet by the pool Louise by the pool
Torquemada working on my feet Looking down the hill Our driver with his Cameroonian Cadillac

Chapter XX: our final days in Cameroon.

We spent the rest of Thursay finishing up all the remaining tasks on Toni's list. We went to Mattieu's rabbit farm and his son's chicken farm and were surprised to see some pretty sophisticated use of technology. He has a big pump that pumps water out of the river up to a cistern and then pipes it down to irrigate his crops. And the chickens were in cages, which I found surprising. For a late lunch, we had a bang-up meal at a restaurant not far from Toni's house. We visited Toni's neighbors, Karine and Leonard and their kids. And Toni and Madeleine prepared some home-made hummus and pita bread which was extremely yummy.

Bafang has a pretty impressive waterfall that is not too far from Toni's house. We went to the falls and found them amazing but I was very unsteady on my pins and managed to fall in the mud just before the viewing spot. (Actually, being an equal-opportunity klutz, I have fallen pretty much every place we have been in Bafang and I have the scars to prove it.) A couple of young Cameroon guys helped me to my feet and made sure that I made my way back to the road safe and sound. Such nice guys!

The falls My hero

On Friday, Toni commandeered another taxi to take us all back to Yaounde. We went to quite a nice hotel in Bastos which is near the PC office and an area that Toni knows well. We ate at a Lebanese restaurant which was yummy and purchased a bottle of wine at the supermarket to drink on our hotel balcony.

Saturday was departure day, although we had the whole day to spend in Yaounde before our 11 pm flight. The highlight of our day was visiting the artisanal market, where we bought a bunch of masks and some interesting fabrics. We bargained for everything, which was a pain, but left us thinking we had bought it all for a great price. Then, after we had a satisfying dinner, we returned to the hotel where Etienne met us to take us to the airport. At the airport, we said our goodbyes to Toni and Etienne and a gendarme took charge of us, checked our purchases and gave us a bill for 10,000 francs for export tax. We then were also assessed 30,000 francs departure tax. Going through security, Madeleine was told that her carry-on was too heavy and we had to shuffle its contents around before she could pass. We got on the plane, and flew first west to Douala, then northeast to Istanbul where we parted from Madeleine and switched planes. Then infinite hours passed, snoozing and watching movies on the plane until we finally landed in Houston about 6:30 p.m. on Sunday. After all that snoozing, you'd think we would have been full of energy to drive back to Austin, but instead we made it as far as the nearest airport hotel and snoozed some more. Finally, Monday morning we had a pretty smooth drive (through Houston rush-hour trafic, yet!) back up to Austin, home and our kittens.

And if you want to read more about Toni's adventures in Cameroon, you can check out her blog here.

Last night in Bastos Export tax?

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