Monday, April 15, 2013

All plans are written in Jell-o

The title of this final post is a mantra I learned early in my Outdoor Education career. It's always good to have plans, but things rarely go exactly as planned. Take the final week of my trip, for example.

Be careful what you wish for

My flight out of Douala was at 3:50am. Awkward. For some reason many of the flights in and out of Douala are in that odd time period between sunset and sunrise when you can't quite decide whether to call it "ungodly early" or "really freakin' late." Us travelers are then left with a crucial decision: stay up all night or get up early?

1am? Stay up late. 5am? Get up early. 3:50am? Let's play it by ear...

Bad idea. After a "last" night of fish and beer with Evan, Lisa and Elvis (the new owner of my motorcycle), I realized that I was too tired to stay up all night, so I'd try to take a quick nap before heading to the airport. As can be expected, the next thing I know Evan's standing in the doorway and it's 4am. Oops.

Regardless of the fact that it was well past departure time, I decided to make a run for the airport and try my chances. I believe my thoughts were somewhere between "Well, it's Africa, maybe they run their planes like they run their buses and it won't leave for another hour or two?" (forgetting that it's an international airport), and "Well, it's an international airport, so there's bound to be another flight soon or someone I can talk to to get this cleared up." (forgetting that it's Africa).

Once at the airport, I found it empty of anyone save security guards and sleeping taxi men. All of the airline personnel had left promptly after check-in and would not be returning until Monday, more than 24hrs later. Dejected, I hopped back in a taxi to Evan and Lisa's, tail between my legs. Going off a security guard's suggestion, I tried to visit the downtown airline offices first thing in the morning, only to be reminded that it was still Sunday and they probably wouldn't be coming in, although they might in the afternoon (they didn't, I checked). Without anyone at the office or answering the phone, my next plan was to just show up at the airport again that night and hope it was a daily departure.

More time for science with Mr. Murphy!

Long story less long, there wasn't. All I got was another shortened night of sleep, some more time hanging out in Douala, and another suggestion to go to the downtown offices the next day, where I was charged a ridiculously large fee I'd rather not dwell on and given a new flight for Tuesday morning (5am, thankfully).

When I crossed the river from Congo I said I wished I had more time in this trip to explore Cameroon. This isn't quite what I had planned...

Wedding plans

Om nom

The original idea, with the Sunday departure, was to spend a few days in Morocco visiting my friend Sue (another PCV, but this time one I knew from before) and attending the wedding of her friend. On the plus side, Moroccans apparently also write their plans in Jell-o (couscous?) and the wedding was delayed indefinitely, pending the arrival of the groom. Downside: my 3-day visit with Sue was down to 24hrs.

Even the 24hrs was lucky, though, as Sue lives near Agdz in southern Morocco and my flight was in and out of Casablana. The main route between the two is a 7-hr bus ride over the notorious Tichka pass (buses tend to fall off from time to time), but I got some comfort knowing that I'd be taking the safer, official CTM bus. Wrong again. CTM was sold out, leaving me to wander into the melee of the Gare Routiere to find a souk bus (for those east-coasters reading this, it's similar to opting for Fung Wah over Bolt Bus, but without any real schedule or rules).

In the end, I was able to find a bus, get over the pass and give the finger to the fates who seemed determined to keep Sue and I from hanging out (Anna and I had tried back in December, too).

So after a fourth night in a row of shortened sleep, I got to spend a day eating Tajines and sandwiches, drinking tea and coffee and debriefing long international experiences as only two Outward Bound instructors can. Then, it was back on the night bus to Casablanca for a fifth sleep-deprived night.

The home stretch

I was in the airport a solid 4 hours before my flight left (not making that mistake again), quickly whisked away to Madrid for a short stop (long enough to realize that Spanish is a different language than French and they don't seem to appreciate it if you try to speak bad African French to them), then lobbed across the ocean to JFK, 282 days after I last stepped foot out of the US. Customs was quick and painless (I was expecting interrogation after all the spy accusations in Kazakhstan) and I was soon back with good friends, good food, good coffee and good beer.

Watching the East River from Brooklyn after a hipster-soaked food festival with BJ and John

The end

282 days, 12 countries, 2 continents (ignoring Madrid), countless new friends, cups of tea, shots of vodka, plates of plov, bowls of Ndole, bottles of lager, uncomfortable seats, cold nights, sweaty nights, new experiences and some very worn-out travel clothes. I'll never be able to fully quantify the events of my life since I left home last summer, nor what I have learned, nor how I have changed from it. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "A mind, once stretched by a new idea, can never return to its original dimensions." Mine's been stretched quite a bit over the last year and I'm sure I'll be continuing to learn from this trip for the rest of my life. I'm glad I at least got to share some of it with you all along the way.

So, that brings an end to my publicly-broadcast life of the past 40 weeks. I'll spare you from the details of my American experiences from here on out, although hopefully many of you'll be there to share them with me. Thank you all for your support and friendship during this trip, I couldn't have made a trip around the world alone like this without knowing that I wasn't truly alone in the world. See you soon!

A welcome-home from Kenny and Julia in NYC

Saturday, April 6, 2013


After my last post from Congo, I explored Brazzaville, hopped a bus up to Ouesso, met some French folk, explored a logging camp and soon crossed the river back into Cameroon:

Leaving Congo behind...
I often get the question "which country is your favorite?" from people interested in my travels. Usually it's a tough question to answer, since each country tends to offer its own unique blend of intrigue, beauty, deliciousness, annoyance, hardship and dullness. Within Central Africa, however, these three countries have left me with a clear favorite: Cameroon. Expense is the most obvious factor (Congo and especially Gabon are way more expensive), but here are some others:


They always look like this
After six weeks on my own and making new friends, it was nice to get back to Douala to spend some time with some good old friends, Evan and Lisa. Staying here provides me with a taste of home and teacher life without all the hassle of flying back to the states and getting a job. Plus they have lots of maps to look at.

My motorcycle

Foumban kid testing out my gear
Back across the border also meant I could get back to Douala to pick up the bike and get back on my own road, instead of dealing with the joys of public transportation (see the past two posts). Unfortunately, my own road isn't necessarily safer than the public route, and sometimes accidents can happen when other drivers don't keep an eye out for guys like me:

wah wah. They had it fixed for me within an hour, though!

My shoe took the brunt of the damage. Amazingly, my foot (and the rest of my body) was fine
Unlike in the states, the entire ordeal was dealt with on a personal level (police would likely have only complicated the matter) and I was back on the road within a couple hours of impact. Don't worry, the bike no longer belongs to me now that I'm back in Douala again.

Moto taxis

reflective vests help to identify in some places

When moving around town and not wanting to ride my own bike, Cameroon has the convenient option of hopping on the back of someone else'e motorcycle to zip through traffic.


Being back to the network of Peace Corps Volunteers was also fun. Instead of showing up in a new town, finding a hotel and sitting at a bar waiting to find out what the town had to offer, I was supplied with a network of Americans who'd spent time getting to know the people and area in which they live, and some deep conversations about international development (not a strong suit of PC), personal growth, world news and life. Plus, free place to stay!

Steph, a PCV in Batouri, showing me the school that Lisa helped build during her PCV days in Lisoi, a tiny town en brusse

Fish mamas

Om nom
Everywhere you find bars, you find fish mamas. Pick out your fish, barter your price, choose your complement (manioc, plantains, rice, beignets or frites, generally) and she'll deliver it to you wherever you're sitting. Wonderful people.

Bar culture

Garoua's street bars (note the beans and puff puff...)

 Bars line the streets with tables and chairs laid out in front, filled with men and women lounging from dawn to dusk with big bottles of Castel, 33, Regab, N'gok or whatever the local brew might be. They usually only serve beer, so that's where the aforementioned fish mamas along with their friends the soya dudes and chicken mamas come in to fill the role to deliver their wares to your table at the bar. Kind of like taco trucks bringing your burritos directly to your booth at the bar next door. To be fair, this exists across Central Africa, but in Cameroon you don't need to spend your life savings (Gabon) or worry about getting tear gassed (Congo - that actually happened to us).

Beans and Puff Puff (Or haricots et beignets)

For 40 cents on the street, this meal is one of the highlights of coming back to Cameroon, along with spaghetti omlettes (60 cents as a sandwich).


After five weeks in the jungles of Gabon and Congo, I started to get the feeling that not only was it expensive, but it's also all rather similar. The natural environment was almost the same as southern Cameroon, except for a few pockets of savannah and plateau, and even the human environment didn't change too much from place to place, whereas Cameroon has over 250 different tribes ranging from jungle pygmies in the South and East to various fufulde-speaking desert tribes in the North and Extreme North to the Anglophones of the mountainous Southwest and Northwest and myriad other examples in between. It helps that Cameroon has over 20 million people, whereas Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville each have ~3 million. The concentration of different things to see in Cameroon, however, left me wishing I had another month or two of my trip to explore the reaches of the country that were missed on my first pass through.

huts in the desert of the North
The Sultan of Foumban, his is one of the larger of 250+ tribes
Although the human diversity doesn't change much place to place, I have been surprised at the diversity within any given place throughout all of Central Africa. It tends to be about the same mix in any village or city: The majority are Bantu (black Africans, generally speaking), who can be seen everywhere and generally function as the moto taxi drivers or restaurant mamas or farmers or unemployed people. Nearly every small shop is owned by Malians, Mauritanians, Chadians or other more northern Africans. Larger shops, boulangeries or businesses are owned by Lebanese, who fled this way after their own civil war way back when. They fill some niche somewhere in between the western/Japanese expats (oil workers, aid workers, diplomats), Chinese expats (construction workers/engineers, Chinese shop/restaurant owners) and the northern Africans.

diversity on display in northern Congo while we're stuck on the road. Left truck is broken down, Right truck fell over while trying to pass Left truck, blocking the road to all but motos.  A crowd of locals with machetes ended up cutting a swath through the jungle to the left for our bus to pass by.
Chinese driver of Right truck is on the left (with friends, also in camo), French researcher/volunteer in center, Bantu all around, not pictured: Pygmie locals and crazy American tourist.