17 March 2009

cambridge to cameroon

“Given your travel schedule during term, you must have something really intense planned for the break,” a fellow Gates Scholar said to me the other night. Indeed I do. Friday night begins my first trip to Africa, which will include a very brief stay in Chad followed by three weeks in Cameroon. It’s a little embarrassing to admit around here, but I’m not going for any concrete academic, research, or professional reason—though I’d like to think it’s about something more meaningful than vacation. It will be interesting to see how the things I see will react with all the academic stuff that has been sloshing around in my brain for six months.

I have been dying to go to Africa for years. Quite coincidentally, Cameroon was my intended country for study abroad my junior year in college until my plans ran up against a parental veto. This time, it’s a confluence of opportunities that is bringing me there: lots of saved frequent flier miles from Alaska, a long break between Lent and Easter terms (someday I will share my theory about why the breaks are so long here), and the chance to travel, not with a local, but with the next best thing. Which brings us to…

Dramatis Personae. My personal Virgil—no, better make that Beatrice—for my Cameroonian adventure is Kate, a friend I met in DC a couple years ago through my former hunger fellow housemates. She is now about seven months into a Peace Corps posting in l’Extreme Nord, the northernmost region of Cameroon. Kate has been keeping a blog about her experiences, which you can check out here: http://katewithdreadlocks.blogspot.com/. I don’t know if she’s planning on posting or staying unplugged while we travel around, but perhaps if she does write you will be able to get a second (read: better-informed!) perspective on what I’m writing about.

It’s also possible that I may meet up with Will, a hunger fellow friend and my roommate/co-worker during my first stint in Alaska. He’s now a freelance writer and journalist working in Lagos, Nigeria. Depending on his work schedule he may come southeast to Cameroon and join us for the climb up Mt. Cameroon. And while I’m plugging friends’ blogs, here is Will’s: http://willconnors.com/.

The Country. Most of you have probably never given much thought to Cameroon, so here’s a really quick primer. Cameroon is located in West Africa, right near the Equator and the Atlantic Ocean. Here’s a map courtesy of Wikipedia (hint—it’s the red one):

Cameroon is often described as “Africa in Miniature” because it has a nice cross-section of the climates and peoples of the continent. The far north is semi-desert, the southeast has rainforest, the northwest is grassland, and the coast is crowned with the highest peak in West Africa, the unimaginatively named Mt. Cameroon. Cameroonians practice Christianity, Islam, and traditional religions; they work mostly as farmers, in the oil and mining industries, and in the informal sector. Cameroon has gotten more than its share of colonial oppression, having been colonized in whole or in part by Germany, the UK, and France. The French influence predominates in most of the country, two of the regions bordering Nigeria are anglophone.

The Itinerary. Lots of details will be forthcoming, of course, but here’s a general sketch of what I’m doing. I will be landing in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, which is right on the border with Cameroon. (Coincidence #2: in my 7th grade French class we were all assigned a report on a francophone country, and mine was Chad. I remember that experience primarily for introducing me to the existence of millet.) My reason for flying into N’Djamena is practical: despite being in a foreign country, it’s a whole day’s journey closer to Kate’s PC post than any international airport in Cameroon.

After crossing the border, we’re basically working our way south. Here’s a map with some placenames on it, courtesy of French wikipedia:

In the extreme north—or Cameroon’s chimney, as I occasionally think of it—we’ll visit a national park with big animals, see Kate’s town, go hiking among some freaky landforms near the Nigerian border, and celebrate my birthday in the bustling metropolis of Maroua. From there we will travel south to Ngaoundéré, briefly check out the sights there, and commence a 12-plus-hour overnight trip on a rattling train to Yaoundé, the capital. I am told that Yaoundé, owing to its altitude, enjoys relatively pleasant temperatures.

Next we make a beeline for Bamenda, in the grassy, western, English-speaking part of Cameroon, which is the jumping off point for a multi-day bike trip. We’ll be pedaling along a Ring Road from village to village, including some with great names like Wum and Bum, and crashing with Kate’s Peace Corps friends who are stationed along the way. Following that, we’ll rest our rubber legs in the beach town of Limbe, and maybe connect with Will if he makes it down, before mounting an expedition up Mt. Cameroon. I’ll wind up in Douala, Cameroon’s largest city (and by all accounts a hot, sweaty, godforsaken place) for my flight out.

Needless to say, this itinerary is subject to change.

The Weather. I haven’t spent much time in hot climates lately, so I’m a wee bit apprehensive about how my body will react. Kate informed me of her plan to bring to bring along extra Oral Rehydration Salts for my benefit. This was about as reassuring as hearing somebody say “don’t worry, there will be ambulances waiting, and the hospital is nearby!” I have also been checking in with weather.com from time to time, and one day the conditions for N’Djamena were as follows:

Can’t say I have ever seen “sand” in the forecast before.

The Mom Worry-O-Meter. I was pleased to learn that this trip actually rates lower on the Worry-O-Meter than my Vietnam-Laos-Cambodia trip. I, however, believe the travel gods are smiling on my trip, mostly because "Africa" by Toto was (rather incongrously) played at the bop after our St. Patrick's Day themed formal at Emma last night.

I don't know when my next opportunity to post will be, but it wouldn't be surprising if it's not for a week or longer. However, I'll be back with a report on the first leg of my trip as soon as I am able!

1 comment:

eeb said...

safe travels! thinking of you!