Friday, January 8, 2010

Christmas Vacation

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the hinge of Africa. The holidays are never the same for me outside of Vermont so instead of trying to "fake it to make it" this year we just did the extreme opposite. Packed up our bags and headed to the hottest, predominately Muslim region of where neither Elyse, Lisa nor I have been before, nor do we know that many Peace Corps Volunteers. That’s the beauty of Peace Corps though. Volunteers you've never met are similar to that distant relative or second cousin in your family. When you show up at their door you're always welcome to a place to stay and whatever is cooking. The volunteers you see often are like brothers and sisters, sometimes you know more about them then you would ever care to know. But that’s family and its kind of nice sometimes.

Anyway! Off to the Grand North! The primary means of travel is to take the one and only overnight train that leaves from Yaoundé at 6pm and arrives in the city of Ngoundere at 6am. The process to even get train tickets is a whole other story. Since Lisa and I were coming from Bertoua, we planned to catch bus at 10pm to travel to a small town an hour north of here where we could catch the train passing through around midnight. Except, frequently, things don't work out. Hopefully if you've been reading my blog you could see that one coming. Its around midnight, we're trying to sleep on random planks of wood among the rumble that is part of the "construction" at the train station and we hear the train might pass through around 4am instead of... now. The busses that brought us here won't be back till the morning, its cold and after a couple beers I'm pretty convinced that this is what the apocalypse would look like. We slept outside for a while and then because we're foreigners, someone from the train station brought us into a little room with chairs and I slept on a coffee table. The train came at 11am that morning and we arrived in the city of Ngoundere at 7pm. Not even half way to our destination and the trip has already taken 20 hours. That’s pretty normal. I'm not complaining, I'm just stating.

Now don't be picturing a beautiful amtrak train here. There is 2nd class which most peace corps volunteers don't dare to venture. First class is where I was. Then there are couchettes- I don't know the name in english but its a tiny room that has 4 beds you can fold down from the wall. Think of first class like a little more spacious 1980's greyhound with a cockroach infestation. Just the smaller ones though. Definitely not spacious enough for the lady in the seat next to me with 3 kids. One of the kids slept under my seat for several hours and the 3 year old demanded for my headphones, split soda, and in general regarded me as a playground. I was astonished she even knew the word for headphones.

Luckily throughout the entire trip I'm traveling with Lisa and Elyse and we've become an unstoppable travel team. Bus stations are insane here, there are people selling stuff, pickpocketers, reserving or not reserving seats, someone gives you their kid to hold, getting your luggage up top, the loud goat on the bus might be under our seat, worrying about where to go to the bathroom, figuring out the ticket system, car sickness, arguing with a drunk lady about her bucket of worms taking up space on the bus... its a mad house. Or should i say bus and traveling around visiting places means you have to deal with this on a daily basis. Not only do the three of us figure it out, but we also watch out for each other and laugh off all these inconveniences. Shout out to us.

So I guess I should explain why we would want to go through this whole ordeal in the first place at Christmas time. We tend to think of Cameroon in three parts: the two Anglophone regions (northwest and southwest), the grand south (west, center, south, littoral, and the east), and the grand north (adamawa, north and extreme north). Those 3 parts of the country are completely different from each other.

The Grand north is cut off by the grand south by the large Adamawa region and it's notoriously bad roads. But once you get there, it’s a completely different country.
We went during their cold season (90 to 100 degrees) which is fortunate because when it gets hot there... it’s seriously hot. Like 120 degrees in the shade. Even in the "cold" your skin cracks up crocodile like in no time. It reminded me of how humid it really is in the East. In Maroua it hasn't rained since October and it won't rain again till around May. Correct me if I'm wrong northerns, the rainy/dry season is much different in the grand south.

The Grand North is mainly Muslim in comparison to the south that is mostly Christian. There are these gorgeous mosques in the large cities and you can hear the call to prayer as clear as a bell where ever you are. Since Muslims abstain from drinking, there are less bars, less Ivorian pop music blaring from the streets and therefore fewer people who are intoxicated. It creates a more peaceful region of Cameroon

A huge mosque in Ngoundere

Side note: youtube is amazing here is a great example of the music played 24/7 Seka Seka Compared to most, that’s actually a quality music video. And my favorite which I can't believe is actually online Ngwa'ak afup Hilarious. I know the dance.

Ok, back to the story, the Northerns also seem to have caught on to the idea that tourism is profitable because they are very friendly to foreigners. There were very few times that people yelled out "white woman!!!" "hey baby" "take me back to Europe with you" kind of calls that come by the dozen in Bertoua. That part alone made me want to pack my bags and move up, desert heat and all. The Grand South has a lot of fish but the North is where you go to get good meat. Beef and Goat especially are DELICIOUS and cheap. The farmer’s co-ops there make great yogurt thats found everywhere which I also had just about every other day. In coomparsion with dairy in the Grand South which is mainly powdered milk, the yogurt was a big upgrade.

So we arrived in the beautiful Capital of Maroua in the Extreme North and even though its in the which looks like the Sahel to me, every street is lined with huge green trees. The pavement is very nice there and all traffic is guided more systematically by intersections and rotaries all organized around this huge river that flows through the center of town. This time of year the river is completely dry, the only thing that goes on there are football games and cattle herding. The city also has great restaurants, a couple hotels with pools, and several artisan shops - I’ve had my eye on a crocodile clutch and a leather bag for a longggg time.

When we arrived at the transit house were already a bunch of volunteers there decorating cookies while listening to Christmas music. We got to know a few of the newer people over some beers and had a great time. A few examples of presents exchanged around the tree christmas morning were a can of pringles, couple packs of gummy worms, a box of corn flakes with a large bowl, and other luxuries that we rarely spend money on. Lisa, Elyse and I made pancakes for everyone for breakfast, followed by Christmas beers at the bar around the corner, lots of Christmas movies in the afternoon and Adam made delicious calzones for dinner. It was really really good Christmas.

After Christmas and before New Years was spent touring around. A bunch of us went to Waza National Park Cameroon's safari designation. They might enjoy having tourists up north, but that doesn't mean they know what to do with them. The park isn't successful at keeping a high population of animals around. There were a bunch of giraffes, monkeys, antelope type animals, birds, but that’s about it. The elephants and lions were on holiday in Chad. Still it was fun but a longgggg day to be in a van driving on paths made by animals (the same crappy kind of busses we normally spend countless hours in even though this time it was rented.

It was exciting looking out for animals but the day after celebrating Christmas- a few of us were more interested napping and being woken up when something interesting happened.

Nothing says traveling in this country without a breakdown. On our way to the Park, getting the bus tied back together
The next day we headed out to Mokolo a town about an hour and a half from the Maroua (capital city/transit house). Mokolo is where Fleurange (kate) one of my favorite fellow Business Volunteers lives and is also a stop over to one of Cameroon's most popular tourist sites, Rhumsiki. Its incredible that tourists from other countries- let alone Cameroonians get to this place because its kind of a trip. Since we definitely didn't have money for a private car we hopped on motos for hire in Mokolo, put on our ipods and flew for hour on what seemed like a dirt bike course with luggage. It was so fun.Highlights of the trip were
1. Almost getting bumped the moto off several times
2. Traffic jams of donkeys and cows
3. I pet a horse as a group of them were running along the moto while we driving down the road
4. The white people moto parade caused commotion in the small villages we drove through. I was waving to kids for a good half of the ride.
5. The gorgeous scenery as we approached Rhumsiki- we could even see Nigeria
When we arrived at the fancy (to us) hotel the concierge takes one look at our dusty dirty selves and says "oh you must be Peace Corps". Then proceeds to assume that we don't need a room with air-conditioning. Since we made out with a $4 dollar PC discount and snuck the three of us into the two person room we didn't really complain. The bed was only a double though so we separated the mattress from the box spring and voila! Two beds. And used the curtains as sheets

It was a legit vacation

I feel like I'm telling an epic journey even though it was a little over a week, but I’m going to keep writing. We ate dinner at a famous restaurant in Rhumsiki- might be the only restaurant - a nice set up of two long tables in an open courtyard right off the side of the road. The owner also looked at us and said "oh you must be Peace Corps". Right again. But instead of making us eat in the back hut or something he pulls out this huge welcome wagon and insists that we make ourselves at home. We sit down and he brings out bread right out of the oven with an amazing roasted garlic spread (I’ve never seen that before here) and chocolate croissants that they're making for the hotel for the next morning. I asked for a cold one and he said "why, you're at home! grab one out of the kitchen!" and took us all back to the kitchen hut so we could all grab something out of the fridge and watch them make the croissants. The owner claims he never left the tiny village for culinary training and has just adapted his cooking to the foreigners who've come through. I don't know if I believe him, but the meal was amazing. At the end we all wrote a little something in the large visitors book he keeps. Box spring or mattress we passed right out after

The next day we set off in search of the CraB Sorcerer. The elder of the village of Rhumsiki is able to predict the future with his all knowing crustacean friend. Who gets replaced every 3 months by the way. He didn't speak French so I had an interpreter to ask him about my future martial status. I wanted to ask him where I would live next year but I didn't because I know he'd be biased to Africaand it’s not like he knows the state capitals game.

Translation: 500cfa per crab picture

He took out rocks that represented different things -love, life, money, Cameroon, Africa, Europe, random things etc then stuck them in the pot of sand. Then he took out the crab, spit on it and then put the crab in the pot.. waited for 2 minutes while the crab knocks over stones and sticks (meanwhile I was thinking where did they find crab around here?? crab cakes would be delicious) until he pulled the crab out and he/she said.... That I could get married right now if I wanted to. Which is true considering the amount of proposals I get here and hate btw. But he said I would get married in 3 years not to an American but to an African and I have the power to have lots of children (yikes). But I would only have 2 boys and a girl. And I'll live happily ever after. (I added that last part).
The sorcerer

We did some great hiking around the rock formations that I heard somewhere used to be the core of small volcanoes and the rest has eroded away with time. I would have pictures of me hiking but instead I hiked off attempting to run around the mountain and lost the group. We spend the afternoon jumping in and out of the pool and reading trashy novels- clearly enjoying ourselves more than the other tourists. Then back on the motos with just enough time before the sun set on the mountains.

Lisa's face says it all.

We're back in the capital city for New Years Eve. The party planning is in the hands of Ehab from my training group and doesn't fail to represent how our group can throw a party even in Africa. It was a "graffiti party" hence the reason we're all dressed in white. The name is a little college/fraternity but its more fun in execution- especially now that we can write on each other in several different languages. It was easily one of the best New Years Eve I've ever had. After we did the big countdown to 2010 (according to someone's random estimation of time) we started the new year off going around hugging each other for about a half an hour. I love my peace corps family.

Here are some more pictures from the trip: Christmas Vacation

Hope everyone had a great holiday and a happy new year, Siobhan