Saturday, April 18, 2009

Climb Every Mountain....ddahhaha the most boring Sound of Music song

It’s like taking me to the top of a mountain and showing me the world and saying, “that’s what you can’t have Bennie you fat article” – Circle of Friends

So that quote really doesn’t apply to my recent experience of climbing Mount Cameroon but I found that any mention of a mountain, climbing, or overcoming an obstacle seemed to be fair game when on my 3 day climbing trip. Last Monday I arrived in Buea which is a city on the coast of Cameroon about 30 minutes away from Limbe which is the area with black sand beaches. Buea sits in the south west of the Anglophone provinces of Cameroon and it very developed with paved roads, an actual tourism office with standards, and billboards with advertisements. Taking the agency from Yaoundé I found myself incredibly surprised to here Cameroonians speaking English. For a second I felt like everyone had been holding out on me and actually could speak English but were just saving it up until they crossed the border to the Anglophone region. One minute someone was yelling at the driver “J’ai besoin pisser” and then the next it was “I need to ease myself”. It was incredibly hard for me to switch over from speaking French to Cameroonians to speaking English. I asked a boy who was selling eggs if they were 75CFA and he looked at me like I was crazy, only until I heard a woman ask in English did I realize my mistake. I was also amazed to see how developed this province is in comparison to the East province. We were riding in the car and I actually saw a woman use bottles and not her breast to feed her baby, she also had a baby carrier that she strapped on as opposed to using a piece of cloth on her back. Everyone had a music player or a fancy phone and I actually saw one man reading on the bus! It’s amazing what I see as signs of development, but maybe they are just signs of western influence- for good or bad.

Okay now I must devote myself to explaining my climbing experience. First off, Mount Cameroon is the second largest mountain in Africa standing at about 4, 095M high (13,435 feet). We started at 1000M above sea level and climbed up about 2095 meters the first day, putting us at about 1000M from the top. Arriving in Buea I saw how green and hilly the countryside was and when I looked up into the sky, trying to figure out which mountain I would be climbing, I became a bit daunted. It turns out that Mt. Cameroon is so high that you can’t actually see the peak from the foot because the clouds are always covering the peak. After asking a local to point out which mountain was Mt. Cameroon I started to stare at what would be my challenge for the next three days. For the excursion I was teaming up with my trusty Eastern partner- Lisa and my friend Fleurange and her friend Shawn from the states. So here is a little background on our climbing family. First Fleurange is one of the most well rounded people I have ever met. She’s from Louisiana but has lived all over the world. She’s super athletic, tall, speaks spectacular French and is constantly smiling and contented. Before Peace Corps she went to Clemson and then worked for a development agency in DC then she took a job in Haiti working in development in a very dangerous region where she couldn’t go out at night, now she’s working in Northern Cameroon and honestly this woman is just awesome. Her friend Shawn goes to Cambridge and has an equally impressive resume as well as quite the experience in climbing mountains and participating in hiking type activities. Before they met us the two had been on a 4 day bike ride around the villages of the Northwest! So, needless to say, I was happy to be attempting this climb with such qualified people, if not a bit intimidated by their physical prowess. Then there was my sister in crime, Lisa. I know I’ve talked about here before because she’s my closest family in the far East. She’s from Seattle and her father’s family is from the Philippines. She loves to bike ride and exercise so she was up the hike as well.
So our little group (who would become crazy close during our 3 day challenge) went to the tourism office and paid our park fees and picked up the rest of our mountain family. Our guide’s name was Samuel, he was Anglophone and very nice, incredibly patient, and he made his living by climbing the mountain about once a week and was a personal driver for a local agency. We decided on two porters- Nikolas and Joseph, who we really didn’t see that often because they were either behind us or in front of us carrying our heavy bags. We started our hike at 7:30am where we walked through local farm land to the base of the rain forest. We passed the local prison as well as some very smelly cows that are pasteurized on the side of the hill. Next we came to the rain forest and started our incredibly steep ascent. Carrying two water bottles and three-days’ supply of food on my back didn’t seem like that much of a challenge until I began literally climbing (we are not talking about the kind of hiking that is really just walking in nature) over tree trunks, over rocks. After about an hour of going straight up and watching the town become covered with clouds, I started to feel the burn in my calves. Thankfully Samuel seemed to know that we needed frequent stops and was often stopping to point out local flora and fauna, one time he showed us a Camilion and he gave us history about the area, honestly I was more focused on drinking water and catching my breath than what he was saying, but I did my best to look interested and unphased.
DAY 1: The first day was a 7 hour day of climbing. We should have been to the camp site or Hut 3 by 3:00pm or maybe 4pm if we had a long lunch, but it was not to be. After climbing through the rain forest for 4 hours and stopping at Hut one to eat some peanuts, very smashed bananas, and avocados, we continued even higher and started to enter the savannah. It’s pretty amazing to see the distinction between the different areas of the mountain as you go higher. There is literally a line where the rain forest stops and then you see scattered trees that seemed to be as stubborn as I was because they weren’t saying anything about maybe biting off more than they could chew. The savanna is made up of large rocks and angry shrubs. Honestly I thought that it looked like an evil stair case leading up to the summit. We entered the Savannah and were told we were about an hour and a ½ away from the next hut where we could rest. Unfortuanetly, those clouds continued to eat up Buea and then the wind changed and I was suddenly drenched. I was smart enough to rent a huge yellow rain coat from the Agency so I hurried to put that on over my clothes. Now we had to climb for 1 hour with no possible shelter, in very wet clothes and heavy winds. This proved to be very difficult for me. Not only were my legs starting to do that shake thing where they are really tired and cold, but my bag and cloths were sticking to me and it just seemed to get more steep. Finally I did make it, with a lot of stops and finally just giving in to the reality that I was going to be soaked so why hurry.
We stayed at Hut 2 for about 3 hours. Now the huts really just look like places Dexter (the Showtime series) would take his victims to kill them. They are little wooden lean-to type houses with a lot of peoples signatures in black paint on the walls. From the doorway of our lean-to we saw something totally amazing. First, the storm passed for about 20 minutes and we could see as far as Guinea and Limbe the beach town over. Then we were able to see the storm gather again with angry thunder and lightning and then it unleashed it fury. It rained hard and long! It was really beautiful, be we began to be worried that we wouldn’t make it to the next hut- about 2 hours away. Secretly I was happy about the long break because I was amazed at how tired my legs felt, so we spent our time asking each other interesting questions and I decided to do something I’d never done before. I peed off the side of a cliff in a crazy rain storm- wow was my butt cold (don’t worry mom I was holding on to the hut, but all you could see was clouds below me). I wish you guys could see the pictures of us on the side of the cliff with the clouds all around us, they are pretty beautiful- if I ever get enough patience and a good connection I’ll put them on here.
So at around 4pm our guide told us that we would be leaving and continuing our journey. The next two hours would not have been possible without some people and I must thank them now. Thank you Queen, The Killers, ABBA, Journey, and Jaime Richardson’s Mix CDs! Without the encouragement of my ipod singing me to the top I would have never made it. It began to rain again and now I was tired, hungry, wet, and the mountain seemed to get steeper and steeper. One thing I remember very well is that we kept asking our guide if the far away speck we saw past the clouds was the summit of the mountain and he kept laughing and saying, “You can’t see it yet”. I felt like I was in my own nightmare where you are climbing up an endless staircase and never reach your destination. Finally, after struggling for 2 and half hours and as the last slivers of light began to be eaten by the night, we arrived.
Hut 3 was relatively nice and after taking a second to sit down and change shoes, I realized we were all in danger of getting pneumonia if we didn’t change our clothes. I had read about people climbing the mountain before and I knew two things- 1 put on every piece of clothing you own so that you can sleep because it’s extremely cold and night and 2-there are mice in the huts and they are determined so hide your food. So first I put on 2 pairs of socks, 3 shirts, and a pair of pants and then I gathered all the food and put it in a backpack to hang up on one of the nails on the wall. Then it was time for the tired troops to make dinner. Using an old beat up pot that only fit half of our pasta, we made a spaghetti dinner that tasted a bit like campfire smoke. At around 9pm we finally headed to bed and almost everyone fell right to sleep, not me however because I realized that our mice were very determined and making a hell of a noise. I realized that they were rummaging through the other bags that weren’t on the wall so I got up and found places to hang all the bags. After showing away some big guys I spent the next 30 minutes trying to go to sleep while a confused mouse ran circuits around my sleeping compadres. First he would run between our heads and the wall and then he’d run over our feet. It’s amazing what you can get used to when you are exhausted.
DAY 2: On day 2 we woke up and reheated our pasta eating an even smokier breakfast. We were told that day 2 was the hardest day because it was 10 hours of hiking. Testing out my limbs I saw that I was still very sore but I thought that the most strenuous of the hiking was over. I was very very wrong! The morning of Day two was the hardest I think I’ve ever physically worked, sorry dad- those basketball practices at the Boys and Girls Club were tough, but nothing compared to this. Not only was the hike steeper, but the elevation became a real problem. I was amazed to see how long it took me to get my breath and how much one 5 minute exertion would take out of me. Thank goodness for Lisa, because we seemed to be hurting about the same amount and you always feel better if you are not suffering alone. Another problem was the fact that we were actually climbing through the clouds so it was constantly wet and making my contacts blurry. After about 4 hours I felt like I was totally done. We still couldn’t see the summit and my whole body hurt. I felt like Frodo in Lord of the Rings, but with less gumpshon. At one point I actually looked at Lisa and told her I was happy at the height that we were at and I didn’t need to keep climbing. I haven’t ever really seen the point of climbing mountains, mostly because it doesn’t really serve a purpose other than to puff up your ego and to fulfill some sort of personal quest. I kept thinking about how I didn’t feel like I needed to prove anything, and I had already seen amazing views from the heights that we had already climbed, what’s another 200M higher. However, I did get up and continue to climb because as much as I don’t get it, I’m not a quitter.
The last half hour was the worst and I honestly couldn’t see anything because of the mist and the wind and I could barely breath because of the elevation and I only made it to the top because Samuel came down and climbed beside me giving me in minutes how long I would take to get to the top. 5 minutes, 2 minutes, you can see it now, 1 minute. When I got to the top I only had enough energy to sit down and try not to cry. I don’t know why I had that emotional reaction, I think I was just at the end of my rope but I sat there in complete exhaustion in the miserable cold and suddenly realized, “We don’t have to go up anymore- now we get to go down.” This idea made a lot of sense to me, finally we had a destination I could embrace- warmth, good food, no mice, no more climbing. Just a day and ½ more and back to Yaounde with hot showers. So I stood up, took some incredibly unflattering photos and we started down the mountain. We were only at the top for about 10 minutes ( I was only there for about 7 minutes) and then it was time to climb down the next side.
Now Mount Cameroon is a series of mountains with a bunch of Volcanos within the range. In 1999 about 12 volcanoes erupted with the kind of lava that is really slow so that everyone could be evacuated. But the eruptions from the past left the mountain black at the top with black rocks everywhere. We descended the mountain in 5 hours and went from about 4095, to about 2000M. It was incredibly fast and so much more enjoyable than the previous days had been. For the rest of the trip I was first in line after our guide and I stuck to him like glue. I had a goal now and I was not wussing out (I also think my calf muscles suck and my thigh and butt muscles rule). For me this section was also the most beautiful. We surfed down the mountain once we reached the black sad sections because it was less stress on the body to just let yourself slide. Then we hit the savannah again and it looked like Ireland or Africa where the cheetahs and lions hunt their prey. I once again want to thank some people for keeping me company: Billy Joel, John Mayer, the Beatles, really bad R and B- Boys to Men and Ne-Yo, and many others who helped create the adventurous ambiance. After climbing up a few volcanoes and realizing the group was next to dying, I had to speak up as group leader and tell our guide that as fascinating as the volcanoes were, we didn’t need to see all 12 personally and we were ready to get to the last hut.
Side Note- Why did Elyse became the group leader? In Cameroon they immediately decide that the man is incharge of all situations and so they often give information or ask information from the guy if he is in a group of women. Well when Samuel first started to explain the hike on the first day, he looked right at Shaun and started to explain. Being the feminist I am, I spoke up and said, “He’s not the leader, I am and you can just tell all of us the information we’ll understand.” I don’t know why it makes me so mad, but I hate when people just assume men are in charge!
So the last hour of the day was pretty difficult because of all the ground we had covered and because of the skimpy food supplies we were eating (our avocados and banana’s got smooched and we were eating wheat biscuits, carrots, and smashed produce for lunch). So I told myself that when we finally arrived I would just lay down on the floor and reward myself with 5 minutes of uninterrupted movement. So I do just that! I put my bag aside and lay down next to the hut and after about 10 seconds I realize, I am laying in a red ant pile! I end up having to strip off all of my clothes and try and rip them off of my shirt and out of my hair- they bite down and they are impossible to remove with out actually grabbing them off like ticks. This was my least happy moment of the day. I still have bites on my scalp from when they crawled into my hair.
The second night we ate spaghetti again and then went to bed at 7pm in a grass hut. These are the types of huts you see all over Africa made from palm fronds and with tarps to catch the rain. I twas very cozy in there and I was so tired I was out in about 10 minutes. The next day was the last leg of the trip, about 7 hours through the rain forest and then arriving in Buea where a taxi picked us up and we took a 6 hour ride to Yaounde. (I had to get back to post for school on Monday). The third day is memorable because both my friend Lisa and I twisted our knees and were in a bit of pain as we came down the mountain. This is also the day that my ipod finally died! So the last hour was pretty crappy because I was hurting with new blisters and now a twisted knee, and I had no music. I ended up talking to the guide a lot and he was a really nice guy- its amazing how much funnier I am in English as opposed to French. We finally reached the town at about 1:00pm and Lisa and I parted for Yaounde.
Overall I would say that I was incredibly glad I did the hike and I would probably do something like that in the future, but now that I know what a challenge it is, I would be better prepared. I also think its very interesting that as soon as I got down off the mountain I wanted to talk to everyone I love and see how they are and just get back to something I knew. A lot of new experiences and challenges at once make me want to go home and have breakfast with my family and then watch X-men cartoons with my dad. Anyway, I love you all and hope you are doing well. Happy Easter!


Saturday, April 4, 2009

Me and my market bag, going to the market today

Take a trip with me to the Bertoua market…
So when I was in America and I had a day off or some time to go shopping I actually really enjoyed going out and getting groceries and odds and ends for the house. I liked heading down to the store and walking through the aisles and pondering something new for dinner or what fruit was in season. I think it was the feeling after you get home where you have big bags of accomplishment. It was like a tangible plan for meals all week with a little bit of spontaneity mixed in, in the form of fruit snacks or jalapeño poppers. Going to the market or super marche’ (white man grocery store) here in Cameroon is quite a different experiences so I thought I’d give you a glimpse of shopping in one the provincial capital of Cameroon.
Today I needed to go to the market to buy vegetables and ingredients for making calzones with some friends that are in town. I jumped on a moto with my market bag headed to the market. I’m slightly startled by the change when going from the Cos of the East or as I call it, “Little America” to the actual outside world that is so much busier than Ndelele. In Little America we watch American shows and do work on our computers (Right now I’m editing the Education Training Manual- it’s currently 138 pages!). We also read trashy magazines from two years ago and come together to eat things we have had sent from home. Recent meals have included Funfetti Cake, stove top stuffing, Wild Mediterranean Rice, and cheesy instant mash potatoes. So you can imagine that after wrapping yourself in the semi illusion of little America, stepping out into the real world is a fun surprise. You never really forget you are here- no water pressure, often no water, people yelling in French next door, all channels on the tv have Cameroonian soap opera’s, no air conditioning. But, it’s easy to be lulled in a sense of displacement from the everyday villageois lifestyle. Anyways, I go step outside with my market bag and my shopping list and head in.
Bertoua really only has one paved road and a lot of really crowded, poorly planned off shoots. We take the main road watching the hustle and bustle of people going about their spring break lives and signal to turn onto a dirt road heading to the market (the signal is my moto driver raising his hand and then choosing when he’d like to turn). We pass the street where they do wood working, making retro 70’s type couches with crazy fabrics. Then we pass the frippery- the Goodwill of the market with clothes that look like they were rejected by many countries before coming here. You can get a dress or a pair of pants or a crazy hat for less than a dollar on a good bartering day. Next we pass by about a half dozen stalls that just sell onions, garlic, and tomatoes. Then my driver stops me at the beginning of the vegetable market. 100CFA to my chauffeur and a remove of my helmet later and I am browsing looking for the best produce. Most people have a Mamma who takes care of them and who they go to religiously at the market. However, this isn’t my town and I feel like spreading my patronage. I buy 200CFA worth of beautiful green peppers (which every time I eat them I think of crappy cardboard pizza with everything on it from Peter Pipper, as a kid I guess the taste of green peppers was really prevalent on that that pizza). I buy lettuce from a woman walking down the street with a big bucket on her head. She gives me a cadeau or a gift of a smaller head of lettuce because I bought so much. When I am in Lele I dream about eating green vegetables so I make sure to eat as much as possible when I’m in the big city working. Next I go and buy garlic, basil, and limes. The basil is fresh and fragrant and the garlic is everywhere here and the limes a bit expensive but well worth it when we make gin and tonics later! As I walk around the market looking for avocados I begin to be deranged. People are yelling at me from all sides, “La Blanche” and “Nasara” and often I get “Cherie” or “My sweet”. I decide to take the “Diagon Alley Market ways” there are a maze of streets all intertwined together where you walk down narrow alleyways and all different types of wares are being sold. We choose a particularly shaded walk way and begin to make the trek back out of the market. We pass stores that sell only colanders and then a story that sells sweat bands, whiskey sachets, cheap gold jewelry, and thread. We are being yelled at to “Vien ICI” and “I have the good things” and we are being grabbed and steered into dark shops lit by backlights that make the proprietors teeth gleam white, creating an afternoon rave for one. We continue down the street and people are squeezing by with fruit on their heads and some women are sitting in the middle of the road cutting a green grass type food they call koki. I’m nto sure why you would be shopping for hoochie jeans, whiskey sachets, fruit and koki all at the same time- but multitasking is an art here. As I exit the market I am once again on the main street with motos whizzing past and the hustle and bustle again making my little village life seem very quiet and a little drole. I walk over to where the motos are waiting to whisk me home back to Little America but I decide to endulge myself and get an ice cream. A small cart sells soft serve ‘vanilla’ and ‘banana’ ice cream and though it really just tastes like “cold” and not a flavor, it is amazing and just the thing for a hot day. For 100CFA you can get a cone and for 300CFA you can get a big cup. I look around the city eating my ice cream and finishing my market trip, ready to go home and cook for the big group of people who will be eating tonight. Just another day doing errands in Africa.