Tuesday, October 4, 2011

5000 CFA for Three Weeks


A few months ago I settled the issue of my lease with my landlord. Most volunteers settle this issue when they immediately get to post, however since my first six months of rent were already paid for I figured I could get away with putting it off. Also when I first arrived I could hardly understand my landlords pidgin and I didn't feel like navigating a lease with her. Now I can gather pretty much what her generally meanings are even if I don't understand every word.

In pidgin words can blur together and even though much of the vocabulary is the same as English, it can be pronounced completely differently. For example, early on my landlord approached me and said something that sounded like “wata bee don com” in phoenetics. Wata means water, which I understood. The rest sounded like a blurr, especially since she said it so fast. I thought she was asking me if I had running water but she shook her head. She tried a few other things or minor variations like “wata bee der todey” or “na wata bee der”. After a minute or so we were getting nowhere so she called for her daughter who repeated “wata bee don com”. However this time she made a gesture with her hand; she rubbed her thumb against her index and middle finger as she said it. This is the universal sign for denero. It finally dawned on me that she was saying “the water bill has come”. I asked “ha much” and she told me 2000 CFA. So I paid her and that was that.

Back to the rent issue. After six months at post my landlord asked me to pay for the next six months. I decided it was time to fill out the lease and see if the Peace Corps could start paying me rent. Due to an error in paperwork the Peace Corps had paid me rent for  my second six months during my initial moving in and I had spent it. I could have paid better attention to my accounting but I didn't think anything of it. The monthly allowance is ample and you can survive well enough without spending much of your money so I never bothered to pay attention to the accounting statements. They had given me five of my next six months rent already and I had spent it moving in without realizing it.

I contacted the accountants of Peace Corps Cameroon and they informed me that I had already spent the bulk of my rent for the next six months. They also no longer will pay several months of rent in advance and volunteers must pay rent monthly and turn in monthly receipts. I think this is a silly amount of work since to send in reciepts you either have to wait for a volunteer to pass by on their way to the capital Yaounde, or take your chances via snail mail and have your reciept arrive in two to twenty weeks. I spent the majority ofmy next monthly living allowance and paid her for four out of the next six months and promised to pay the final two the following month.

Unfortunately a “wata bee” and “light bee” in addition to medical costs reduced my wallet to 5000 FCA with three weeks before the next payday. Like I said before, to turn in my medical reciepts and get reimbursed it could take anywhere from one to twenty weeks and there is a risk of your mail never arriving. So I decided to lead a simple life and see if I could manage.

Luckily I had recently bought some eggs and oats. I already had a supply of noodles and cooking oils as well as spices. I ate oats with milk powder and honey for breakfast. I splurged on these little fake cheese wedges and hot sauce for my eggs for lunch. Noodles or rice and beans were for dinner(rice and beans costs 200 CFA for a plate that will fill you up from the wonderful food mommas). After some of these things ran out I resupplied but it was pretty easy to spend absolutely nothing for two of the weeks. A few of my farmer friends occasionally stopped by with some fruit so I also had that too. Buying more eggs and oats ate up 3800 CFA but by then I was almost done with the three weeks. One day I checked my bank account and discovered the accountants paid allowances. To celebrate I grabbed a beer and ate some street cow meat for 1000 CFA.  

The 5000 CFA translates into roughly ten bucks for the three weeks, though purchasing power certainly is different here than in America. Unfortunately a similar situation happened the following month after I spent a little too much money reuniting with some volunteers and then paying for travel deep into the bush for work(I had to pay off the other two months of rent as well). The second time around it was fun and I had a bit more money to boot. Funny enough, before and after these little setbacks in my wallet, my diet already consisted of primarily oats and honey, eggs and cheese, fruits, vegetables, noodles, rice, beans, and with money the occasional fish and beer.   

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Road Home

The Road Home

After a week of work in the bush I was ready for home. It was a long and cold hike to get to Bermin. Then it was a week of living in a bush village with no electricity or running water(we filtered our water with Joe's portable filter). Tons of biting insects and rain that seemed to go on for infinity. Thus, it is no surprise I wanted to find a quick ride back to my post. It would save money and a lot of time. So I took the chance when a cocoa truck arrived to transport the harvest back to a city for export. I was lucky enough to be the only person desiring a ride back to the city, so I hopped in shotgun and hoped the ride would be quick and smooth.

The first problem we came across was a large tree that fell across the road. Storms had raged the previous night and this did not bode well for traveling on the terrible dirt roads of the South West region. The driver and the worker hopped out of the truck and then trekked back to Bermin to get help. After about a half hour of waiting a group of villagers arrived with machetes and an ax. They hacked the tree up and we continued on our way.

At various points I had to exit the truck while the driver tried to make it up various steep and muddy hills. Luckily we did not get stuck for more than a half hour at a time. It is not uncommon for trucks to become permanently stuck in the mud. We continued our journey on a muddy dirt road that did not let up until we made it out of the bush. Their was one more hiccup before we got off the bush paths. Well, I wouldn't exactly call this a  hiccup but more of a close call. A few hours into our ride we came to a bridge. We had already crossed several bridges so this was no bid deal. Bridges in the South West range from small wooden planks that span a chasm ten feet deep to larger river bridges that are composed of shaky planks(actually all of the bridges are made of shaky planks). These wooden bridges generally have solid foundations but the planks that you actually cross on are usually quite shaky. So there are large bridges that cross big rivers, and small ones that cross creeks. This bridge was of the latter type. It was maybe ten feet off the ground over shallow running water. It was maybe fifteen feet long. For whatever reason we had a difficult time getting onto this bridge. The worker riding on the back of the truck hopped off and gave instructions to the driver so that he would get his tires onto the correct planks. We got onto the planks and began crossing the bridge. Just as the front tires reached the other side and we were almost off the bridge, the left plank snapped causing the truck to lurch back and to the left. We were falling off the bridge, so the driver slammed on the gas and we flew forward off the bridge. For a brief moment the driver did not have control and we almost crashed into a ditch. However he hit the brakes and the worker hopped on the back and we continued. A truck pulled up just as we were driving off, took one look at the bridge and turned around.  

The rest of the ride was uneventful but long. It took a total of ten hours to get back home. Rainy season in the South West region destroys the unpaved roads but it can make for some good adventures. Overall the trip to work in Bermin was one of my favorite trips. The scenery was gorgeous and the work was good. It was quite the memorable and amazing experience. Well worth it.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Bermin II

A great thing about friends is learning from them. Joe had brought a birds of West Africa book and knew quite a bit about the various birds we saw. Right outside the training building were a couple of widowbirds. The female looks rather plain but the male has vibrant dark colors and a long tail with which to attract the female. The male we saw was dancing around in the air and trying to impress a female. It is incredibly interesting because the male was having a difficult time hovering with such a long heavy tail. The length of the tail increases chances at mating but decreases the chance of survival(due to increased weight and thus decreased agility). The males with longer tails can attract mates easier but make for easy prey. Its a give and take.

Back to our training schedule we found that many people were simply too busy with farming to make time for trainings. Even the kids were reluctant to show up to environmental education because they were busy with chores and who really wants to learn during the summer? The sessions were generally small,  maybe eight to fifteen people each, however this made it easier to personalize the sessions and have one-on-one discussions beneficial to the group.

During the week we had to hike to the village of Mbang to complete a community mapping project Joe was assigned. The hike was near the center of the South West region which is complete bush. Thick, beautiful jungle surrounded the foot paths we trekked. We crossed several rivers by hopping the stones and never saw the sun due to the thick canopy and overcast sky. Half way through the hike the light drizzle turned into a downpour but the canopy prevented us from getting drenched. A funny thing about hiking these bush paths alone is that you often come to crooked forks in the road where the locals tell you to just keep straight. Thus when our bush path emerged perpendicular to a dirt road we had to make a choice. Usually a flip of the coin suffices, but I decided we should head up the hill. Luckily we choose correctly and arrived at the chiefs hut in the pouring rain. The community mapping went well but the rain shortened things. It was getting late in the afternoon and we did not want to be hiking in the jungle at night.

The chief insisted we take a guide just to get us across the first river which we rock hopped initially. Due to the continual downpour this would not be an option for crossing back. The river had flooded and all of the stones were below three to five feet of running waters. The Cameroonian went first and slowly but surely navigated across the river. Step by step he found footholds on rocks to support his body which was constantly pushing back against the current. At times he was chest deep in the water. He made it back just fine but Joe was against trying to cross the river. I searched a little south and found another entrance to the river that looked easier to cross. We made our way down and the Cameroonian hopped in and found a slightly easier path across. He took our bags across first and then one by one led us both across the flooding river. He stood in front of us and held our hand while taking the brunt of the force from the river. Keep in mind that me and Joe were wearing hiking boots while the Cameroonian was wearing jellies(weird rubber sandals), shorts, and a flimsy yellow rain coat. And he did everything nonchalantly. 

We crossed fine and continued our hike. It was beginning to get dark but we could still see the path fine. Our boots and pants were soaked so it didn't matter how we trudged through the mud. We wanted to hurry so that we wouldn't be hiking by flashlight. We crossed the second river just fine and were almost to the outside quartier of Bermin. Along the way I found a river crab on the path, probably displaced by the floods. I grabbed him and asked our guide if he would eat it. He said yes and as we parted I gifted the crab to him. Thinking back on it we really should have kept the crab and had the chiefs wife cook it for us. It was as big as my hand and I probably won't get many chances to eat the fresh water crabs around here. In the end we made it back fine just as the night sky was turning dark. Sure we were soaked and exhausted but it felt great sitting with the chief for dinner and taking a warm beer.

The rest of the week went well. Joe planned the sessions thoroughly and a decent amount of people showed up. For the environmental education sessions we took a group of kids down to the lake and discussed basic science and ecology while they fished. As the week wrapped up an opportunity arose to grab a ride with a truck back to my post.  This meant I would have to leave two days early, but it wasn't an issue because the last two days were light sessions and Joe was more than capable handling them alone. This also meant I would not have to hike twelve miles back up a mountain in the cold rain. However the road back home would prove quite interesting.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Lots to Say

I apologize for the delay in getting more pictures up. It is not often I am in the capital Yaounde where there is fast internet at the Peace Corps half way house. Yaounde is a fun city though expensive. There are plenty of western amenities, chief among them being pizza and burgers. I even went to the happy hour at the Hilton and took two cocktails on the rooftop bar overlooking the city. It can be a real fun city, but having to stay in the Peace Corps half way house can be a drag. The problem is not the people or the house itself(I have no problem living in an Animal House), but rather that you are constantly in proximity of the higher ups of Peace Corps Cameroon and the administration can be indifferent at times. Volunteers love to gossip about their problems but more on that later, for now the pictures will talk. These are from my travels up in the dry and hot northern regions of Cameroon. The landscape and people are quite beautiful.



Prison bus to Ngaoundere. Six hours or so.
'

The Adamawa





Lake Lagdos, North Region


The island at the center of the lake, Madagascar


Misty view of the Lake from the island Madagascar



The Extreme North



Maroua, a truly beautiful city surrounded by the driest heat




Rhumsiki mountain(I think its a mountain), Extreme North Region


The village at Rhumsiki

View of Rhumsiki village from atop a small mountain


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bermin

Recently I traveled for some work deep into the bush. My friend Joe wanted to go to the village of Bermin (pronounced bemy) and put on some agricultural trainings for adults and environmental education for students. It was going to be about one week in a remote village where they didn't even have a science teacher at the local school. That was the main gap Joe wanted to fill. He prepared a short environmental education manual that emphasized basic science.


We each brought a pack though mine was much smaller. Joe had to carry the flip charts and a few other things for the presentations. All I bought were two pairs of pants, two shirts, malaria prophlyaxes, and a few toiletries. Joe pretty much brought the same and off we hiked into the jungle., first following well cleared main roads before departing onto bush paths that only villages use. 


The trek to Bermin from Bangem is around twenty five kilometers. We departed after a hearty breakfast of eggs and potatoes. The overcast sky eventually cleared and we had a warm hike. In the South West region it is usually raining and warm, but if you are up in the mountains it can get quite cold even this close to the equator. The rainy season last from about March till December. The path was fairly muddy and ranged from grassy and dry to muddy and rocky. However when the path fell into the muddy and rocky range, it could go to the extremes. At times it seemed impossible for a vehicle to pass but they were there trying (we saw maybe two cars and a handful of motos). Overall it was an enjoyable stroll. We left around nine am and arrived at the village before Bermin at three pm. There we took a beer and relaxed before the last hour hike to Bemin.


The sights were great. Beautiful lowland jungle the entire stroll. There were massive trees with beautiful canopies, the weirdest exotic insects, and several interesting rivers with interesting bridges. The bridge to enter the outskirts of Bermin is a hanging vine bridge. It is made out of local vines that grow in the jungle. It looks like something from a high ropes course. It was fun to cross and hang out on.


After we arrived we deposited our gear in the son's room at the chiefs house. Our feet were blistered from walking and our backs were sore from carrying. Next we went down to bathe in the river. We were both quite filthy so we walked into the water fully clothed and scrubbed the mud and sweat out. Something seemed out of the ordinary to me. Maybe it was the fifteen villagers with us and all of them were naked. We, on the other hand, bathed in our boxers. 

For the duration of the week we slept and ate at the chiefs house. His wife was a great cook and made sure everything was piping hot when we ate. We ate really good local dishes for the entire week. Everyone in the village was warm and welcoming. The chief and a few of his friends were interesting to chat with about life in the bush, their dealings with foreigners, etc. Everything went really well traveling to Bermin and we were well received.


The following day we traveled to the various quarters of Bermin to inform the quarter heads and as many people we could of the scheduled trainings for the week. Then we put up a few signs with the schedule and location around the village. The rest of the Sunday we had free, so we asked the locals about fishing the rivers. They told us to catch the green grasshoppers to fish the rivers. It was here that I discovered I am good at catching grasshoppers. Quick hands and a knack for guessing which way they will jump. I will file that under skills to impress nobody with. We caught maybe twenty or so and went down to a bridge. We dropped some lines in the water and relaxed. Unfortunately we did not catch anything. 


The week of training was about to begin. We had arrived, had some meetings, and set up the classroom for the trainings. I had several blisters on my feet, a few of which popped so I was washing my blisters daily. At night the moot moot flies would enter our room and bite us to hell, though there weren't many mosquitoes. The rats that crawled around our bags at night searching for food did not bother either of us. It was all the biting bugs that made nights hot and itchy. I forgot to mention there was no electricity or running water. Thus we had to gather river water and filter it and operate by kerosine lamps at night. The lamps can give a charming feel to dinners, especially if you are eating fish and discussing why bush meat is bad, meanwhile the guy next to you is chewing on the jaw of a monkey.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Long and Winding Path

Sorry it has been a while since my last update. You can plan to write once every other week until life happens and then you find yourself hiking up a mountain and wondering why it is cold in Africa. Its easy to forget the little things.

For the past few months work has continued on as usual. I meet plenty of farmers who are eager to try new techniques on their farms. This past Sunday took me on a hike up to Lake Barombi to visit with the isolated village of the same name. The day was unusually clear and sunny for rainy season. This gave the forest around the lake a thick humid feel. The path to the village was a winding trail through thick tropical vegetation. The ground was slick and muddy, at parts sucking my entire boot into the mud. But for the most part it was a small dirt path surrounded by endless green on one side and lake on the other. Birds sung exotic song from the canopy while an endless amount of insects chirped in the background the entire way. The path passes by a few of the Barombi farms, and as you get closer and closer to the village cocoa farms become more numerous.


It takes roughly one and a half hours by foot to get to the village. I was soaked in sweat but it was a gorgeous walk. The path followed the lake almost the entire way and was full of beautiful discovery channel-esque moments. On the initial path to the lake there are a few rock cliffs and there is a cave beneath one of them. After only a few feet into the entrance I shined my torch up at the rocky ceiling and unintentionally caused a scattering of bats. They fluttered about the top of the cave and some went a bit deeper(*next time, when I am not alone, I will explore the dark jungle cave further). On the path there were some of the weirdest looking insects, some beautiful sounding but hard to see birds, tons of lizards, and I saw one lone snake. There were quite a few ant colonies creating tunnels out of ant bodies across the dirt path. I could probably keep rambling on about all the different animals, insects, and vegetation around the lake but I will end with the jungle squirrel. The jungle squirrel doesn't look much different than the common squirrel physically, but its color is more reddish brown. One in particular caught my attention because this jungle squirrel was caught in a hunters trap. It looked like a simple rope snare that caught around the squirrels ankle or tail. The poor guy was stuck on the branch he was attached to, and I was not going to get in the way of a hunter and his prey.


After a hot and sweaty few hours of hiking I made it to the lake village. I ran into two farmers who informed me that I was actually on the outskirts of town. They both were heading to the main town and offered to take me. It ended up being another fifteen minutes to get there and a lot of this path was flooded. I was dropped off at the chiefs hut and I introduced myself and my purpose for visiting. Today was an introductory visit to see if I could provide some trainings to the village. The chief and his friends were happy that I was there to help them, and he asked me several times if I could lecture that same day. I had to decline because I had nothing prepared. We agreed to meet again in late August to discuss  what needs are most pressing and arrange specific details for the trainings.


The chief then offered to get me a ride home in one of their canoes. I quickly accepted being a bit tired from hiking most of the day. An older boy, maybe fourteen years old, took me down to their boat launch which was just a four meter wide dirt path down to the water. There were four canoes and only one of them looked safe. The other three were old hollowed out tree trunks that looked like they were on their last legs. We hopped into one of the better looking trunks and paddled out onto the lake. It took a few minutes to get used to sitting in the canoe. It was narrow, but my frame just fit in. It was maybe ten feet long and didn't look to be more than half an inch thick on average. The canoe was sensitive to movement but that wasn't out of the ordinary. The lake vegetation was quite a site featuring hundreds of water lilys and several other weird looking aquatic plants. The wide open lake left us little cover from the sun which beat down on us for the forty minute trip. The water kept us cool when needed, and after  we landed I hiked back to town.       

Now I am heading to a remote jungle village to help with some environmental education and farmer trainings. After that I may be traveling again for work in another village in the South West region. Then I should be back to plan some trainings with the lake village.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The North Versus the South

The transition from the southern part of Cameroon to the northern is quite drastic. The humid lowlands and humid highlands are full of dense green vegetation, and then once you cross into the sahelian north the country begins to look like arid plains. Trees become sparse, the ground looks dry, and the vegetation is not as thick or lustrous. The heat is intense and dry. After a few short days my nose dried out and would occasionally bleed. Cold beers gave temporary relief from the fiery sun.

After in service training I traveled up to the Northern region. My first stop was at Lake Lagdos where Hippos and monkeys are known to hang out. Myself and some friends stayed at a hotel on the beach and had a picnic. Then we camped out on the beach and drank a few beers in front of a bonfire. We did see a Hippo swimming in a grotto just two hundred feet away from our beach. On the afternoon of the second day we took a boat out to the island in the middle of the lake called Madagascar. There was a small Muslim community and a giant mountain of boulders to climb.

The following day we traveled up to Maroua in the extreme north. As if the impossible were possible, it became drier and hotter. The city itself is beautiful and lined with rows and rows of giant trees providing shade. The main boulevards are covered in trees such that sunlight barely breaks through and touches the dusty road. There was plenty delicious goat and sheep meat to be found on the streets here. Dried dates and street soy, or rather street tofu were available which can't be found in the south. The majority of the population wear light colored robes and sandals. Throughout the day loud calls and sirens alert the unaware that it is prayer time in the largely Muslim north.

One day was spent resting before we (myself and some other volunteers sightseeing) headed to go see Rhumsiki, a mountain in the far north province. The moto ride to get their was possibly the closest ride I came to serious injury. The driver appeared to be Muslim and sober, but I can't say for certain if he had something to drink or not. Anyways the road was dusty and bumpy and he nearly lost control of the bike about four times in dangerous situations. At least he didn't understand English. We made it safely at night and had a delicious dinner at a restaurant that frequently has Peace Corps volunteers. The food was great and the night sky was beautiful. The next day we awoke early and hiked around the hills of Rhumsiki. It is a beautiful dry country up in the far north. Before we left myself and another volunteer decided to climb the small mountain right in the middle of town. Some of the village kids followed us and showed us some short cuts up the towards the top of the mountain. After a certain amount of climbing it simply became too dangerous for us to go any further. We stopped, and climbed back down.

The trip back afterward was uneventful. Back in the Adamawa I climbed Mt. Ngaoundere which was beautiful. The way back overland was great fun, this time with a buddy. Now back home the rain has come. Meaning it can be impossible to stay out during the evening. Rain has already saturated the ground. Whenever it rains it immediately starts puddling up and quickly becomes impassibly muddy. Which effectively locks me in my house.