I know you have all been anxiously awaiting this post…and here it is! After a total of 18 hours actual travel time (plane, plane, bus) and approximately 36 hours in transit we arrived in Bamenda on Wednesday evening. We’ve JUST gotten connected to the net so this is the soonest I could update. I’m still working on a way to get photos posted as the connection isn’t quite fast enough for me to do it here yet.
Let me begin…flight across the Atlantic was completely normal aside from the fact that the Air France seats were the most uncomfortable that I have ever experienced. And the medical call and woman seizing a few rows in front. Nothing like the man dying on my flight to Fiji, but hey, it added some excitement. Needless to say there was not much sleep to be had. Connection in Paris went along smoothly and we were en route to Douala…and I was en route to sleeping the entire 6 hours of that flight.
We touched down in Douala around 7:45pm June 1st and the real adventure began. Unfortunately there had been a bit of miscommunication about our departure and arrival times. After lugging my 140lbs of baggage through the sweltering airport (seriously, I have never experienced that level of heat and humidity) and through the madness that was “customs” we were thrust in to a pulsing, sweaty (somewhat stinky) crowd. After looking everywhere possible through the airport for the sign welcoming “Mary and Regina” and failing to find one we decided to hang tight and hope our pick-up was just running a bit late. Thankfully there was a covered arrival area because when that rain started it did not stop…and it came down HARD. A policeman approached asking if we were waiting for someone. He also spoke English which was a godsend since it was about 8:30 at this point and we were starting to wonder if we’d been forgotten. He let us borrow his phone, we were able to make a few calls and find out that our ride was on her way. The policeman, Jean-Jaques, stayed with us and chatted. I found out that he loves Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chris Brown and Obama–America is his dream. He also told us that Bamenda was “fresh and cool.” Thank. God.
Around 10:15 Doris, who works for CHRAPA in Doula, arrived with her brother George to pick us up. We spent the next hour driving around in torrential downpour trying to avoid hitting any of the majority of people on the road on motorbikes and find a place to buy a cheap cell phone. Thanks to the rain and the match up between Portugal and Cameroon everywhere was closed. We retreated to Doris’ family home to rest before catching a bus the next morning to Bamenda. Doris treated us to some delicious chicken and rice–real chicken, not US style breast-implant sized chicken and we talked a bit with her family. I have never craved a cold shower more in my life which is great b/c there is no such thing as hot water for bathing here. It literally takes your breath away so that rather than singing in the shower you end up making grunts and shreeks. Thankfully the family knew I wasn’t sharing the shower with anything other than the gecko on the wall.
We woke early the next morning to some tea with amazing honey and french bread with avocado. After driving around Douala a bit we came to a cell phone shop where they negotiated the purchase of a second cell phone for Regina. Unfortunately that phone didn’t work (which we didn’t discover until arriving in Bamenda). Then…to the bus!
To be able to live this next part as authentically as possible I now suggest you begin a playlist of Phil Collins’ Tarzan Song, Celine Dion, some Cameroonian song about how a guy isn’t a real doctor but still wants to give a woman an injection (yea, you work that one out for yourself) and add in a little bit of awesome Jesus music complete with hand clapping. Before we left (about 10:15am) a traditional healer came on and sold a few people some bark and ointment that apparently you rub on your teeth. I avoided that one. The bus was packed. The bus was stinky. The bus was hot (apparently all the Cameroonians are used to the stiffling heat and humidity and ride with windows closed…the guy in front of me shut the window every time I opened it. He came to regret this. Read on). The bus was BUMPY. I should preface this all by saying that my malaria meds and I do not get along well. The directions for the doxy are to take on an empty stomach–up to this point I had only experienced nausea. However, reference the description of the bus. Add to that my doxy….aaaand you get Mary puking on the bus. Yea. It was great. Especially b/c I had no bag at first. Where did it all go you ask? In my lap. Yup. It was nice. Thankfully it was on an empty stomach so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but very unpleasant all the same. I think all around me were happy that we stopped at a roadside market a short time later. I got out and poured some water on myself to clean the sticky stinky stuff off. Let’s note that this was 3 hours in to a 6 hour bus ride. Gross.
The market had pretty much every foodstuff you’d expect, and some that you wouldn’t. Grilled fish, fruits, plastic bags full of orange drink and water? I purchased a delicious 20 cent 1/4 pineapple. It. was. amazing.
At the market stop I met a group of Americans who just finished building a house with Habitat, so that was a nice little encounter. It’s pretty easy to spot the other travelers when you’re the only white person around. On that note…Regina and I are both White. And we are constantly referred to as “the whites.” I have a feeling that somehow wouldn’t slide stateside, but I mean…it’s true, no? Anyhow.
We got back on the bus and started the climb in to the mountains of Northwest region. While the scenery all along the way was beautiful, and it was really wonderful to see the villages and people working as we drove, as we drove into the mountains it became really breathtaking. Absolutely beautiful. I don’t know how I have yet forgotten to mention that driving/riding is INCREDIBLY scary. For one thing, the motorbikes are EVERYwhere, and they operate like bats outta hell. Second, there are signs posted along the road that let you know how many people die at certain points–these signs are posted no more than about 30kms apart. Third, all of the ladies on the bus started talking about families that had killed in car accidents along that road. I’ve since been informed that buses are the way to go as they’re more “secure.” Reassuring. I mention this all because the driving got a bit scarier in the mountains as the bus frequently passed motorbikes right on the edge of fairly steep cliffs. However…SO gorgeous.
The first time we stopped to drop off passengers there was a little excitement. A couple had been riding the bus a few rows behind us and the man got off and tried to take their baby with him. The woman, who the rest of the bus proceeded to tell us was totally insane, flipped out and started wailing and hitting the guy and the people around her. The entire bus (well, like 2/3 of it) got up out of their seats and started yelling and waving their arms and trying to get the woman off the bus. While this all was happening I kept seeing Hillary Clinton saying “it takes a village.” Interesting little experience.
After stopping a few more times to let people off the bus, and wait for others to purchase cabbage, tomatoes, beans and lettuce (which are the “best” in Cameroon) we finally headed in to Bamenda, arriving about 4:45 pm. Of course it was raining. When we made the call that we were at the bus station, ready to be picked up we were told that nobody could be sent out until the rain stopped. Great, so we’re going to live in the bus station. Thankfully, it subsided to a sprinkle a little later and Doris from CHRAPA picked us up, and we hopped in a cab back to the office and our room.
Our room…one bed and a bathroom. Definitely workable for the time being, but lets just say sharing a double bed and a 12×12 space with somebody for 8 weeks is definitely not ideal. Thankfully they’ll be moving us out when the apartment/rooms are ready elsewhere. Otherwise, it’s nice to be staying within reaching distance of CHRAPA’s offices. I don’t quite understand why the room is carpeted? I mean, for a place where it rains 6 months of the year and 80% of roads/sidewalks are red mud it’s a little unpractical don’tchathink? I think it’s also pissing off my allergies thanks to the dirt, dust and mold it so nicely houses.
Our first dinner experience was at a restaurant next to the room/offices. Marinated chicken with fried plantains and njama-njama. The plantains and njama-njama were fabulous. Njama-njama is a little like collared greens made from huckleberry leaves. It tastes just like warm spinach dip–the kind that comes in a pumpernickle breadbowl. My chicken, however, came with feathers. MMMmmmMMMmmmMM. Apparently here, since we’re whites we must be rich, so we got stuck with the bill. I’ll take the advice of previous volunteers and make sure everybody understands that we pay for ourselves next time.
I was out cold by 9pm the first night in Bamenda, and apparently provided quite the feast for the very few mosquitoes that are around here. I put my net up last night. Aside from being a big cramped with two to the bed, it’s relatively comfortable. Since the weather here is indeed cool and fresh sleeping is quite comfortable. Unfortunately, the invisible neighborhood dogs like to sing all night, which is a little non-conducive to sleep. And the roosters, along with most of the people, rise around 5 and start making all sorts of fun sounds. Life here starts early and ends early…which will take a bit to adjust to but is really quite nice.
Wow. So I’ve written a lot more about our first few days and taken up a lot more space then expected. I’ll leave it here with a few parting thoughts: Men here wear jelly shoes and it cracks me up. If you ever wondered where clothes and stuffed animals and shoes you donated to some organization have gone it is to Bamenda’s market. The motorbikes here are SOOOOOOOOO freakin cool. They cost about $300. If I didn’t know I would die upon trying to drive one I would buy one and have it shipped back home. Andrew, you’d love them.