Monday, February 27, 2012


Harar is famous for a couple of reasons. Historically it was an important Islamic town and while I don't know enough about such things to say what is true, some people here consider it to be the 4th most important Islamic city in the world. The old walled city is pretty small but boasts the densest concentration of mosques anywhere apparently.
Up to about 100 years ago it was a free city and also a major hub in the slave trade. The old city walls are mostly covered with buildings and the city spread farther afield but there are still 5 city gates to “see”, though only 2 actually still have proper gates. There are lots of little narrow lanes and markets within the old town. It's been described as something like a mini Fez (Morocco). I can see where you might get the idea but it's a lot smaller. I found the people to be generally less of a hassle, only most of the kids asked for money, not all, and the biggest problem was the hassle from wannabe guides but they left me alone fairly quickly. If you just sat in one spot trying to watch the world go by and maybe take a few pictures, eventually one would find you and invite himself to sit down beside you and talk nonsense. As soon as they saw another group of tourists go by they'd quickly run off and chase them. But like Pacman trying to manoeuvre away from the ghosts I found myself taking random turns down different narrow lanes trying to dodge and avoid potential touts or beggars following or calling after me.

Narrow streets of old town Harar.

For me the most immediately noticeable thing of Harar was that the women are more colourfully dressed than elsewhere in the country. The 2nd thing I noticed were the flies. All over the place. It's what the guide books won't tell you about. They drove me crazy. I guess it all added to the effect of age though. Harar has well over 1000 years of history and it still feels a bit stuck back in time. More than anywhere else in Ethiopia it feels and looks old and has it's own vibe. Maybe it was the little lanes, maybe it's the look of the people, the squishy markets with people sewing and doing other business on the street, the donkeys being led by old women or the straw and manure on the cobblestone streets but it reminded me of a silk road town. It's poor too, with lots of beggars and people sleeping on the streets in the new town where I was.

Market life.

No consensus on what colours are in style..

Note the old town gate in the background.

The countryside from Harar.

I stayed in the main hotel that the budget travellers use just outside one of the old town gates. I met a group of 8 Americans that were there taking a break from their jobs teaching at a highschool in Hargeisa, Somaliland. As it was my next destination I hung out with them a bit to see what I could find out. They weren't in Harar so much to visit as to party it up because it's impossible to do so in Hargeisa. They think it's insane and a waste of time to visit Somaliland because there is nothing to do there. I get the impression that they really don't like the place and were constantly making fun of it.
The next day I met 2 Canadian guys that are travelling around eastern and southern Africa and were also planning on going to Somaliland. They quickly decided to jump in on my plan to leave the next day, so that night we all went to see the hyenas.
The biggest tourist attraction and most famous thing in Harar is the hyena man. Every night he feeds meat to “wild” hyenas for the tourists. Of course we had to go check it out. All the guides in Harar are trying to take you there anyway so it's not like you could actually miss it. So just after sunset a group of us walked to the other side of the old town where just outside the walls the hyena man hangs out. The hyenas are wild but habituated to this guy and he basically treats them like his pets and even pushes them around or hugs them a bit. He brings a big container of scrap meat which he puts strip by strip on a short stick which he holds out to the hyenas. They know the deal and mostly patiently wait for it and come one by one to eat. There were 6 hyenas when we were there.
Tourists (there were about 30 including locals) would line up on one side taking photos. For lighting there would be 2 tour vehicles shining their headlights on the whole thing. Then 1 by 1 the tourists could come up and hold the stick while the hyena man would put meat on it. The “cool” thing to do is hold the stick in your teeth and have the hyena come right up to your face to eat the meat.
The weird thing is it really didn't seem nearly as scary as it sounds. The hyenas seemed completely uninterested in all the people around and focused solely on eating. The other hyenas waiting on the outskirts would run away if you tried to approach them to take photos, and once the meat was all gone they scattered pretty quick. For a couple of dollars it was worth doing.

The hyena man.

Getting up close!

Today the 2 Canadian guys and I travelled to Hargeisa in Somaliland. We didn't get here until after sunset but first impression is a good one and the people are very nice so far.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Map Lines

I'm writing this one mostly to remind Savannah how much she loves earning lines on the map and hates the flying option....
It was 3 days on the bus to get from Jinka to Harar. The first day I met a 41 year old French guy, Stephan, also going to Harar and he decided to follow my route and schedule rather than his (which would've also taken 3 days but involved going all the way back to Addis). He, like everyone else it seems, is completely fed up with Ethiopia and it's people. He's been here 6 weeks and had spent more time in more areas in South Omo than I did, but from his attempt at doing it independently and his stories, I was wise to bail out. He got stuck a lot due to a lack of transport and had to pay up big to other people for lifts or to do anything really. Anyway, he complained a lot, which in a way was amusing and added to my long list of complaints already heard about here.
The first day I made it back to Arba Minch as I said in my last post. The only annoyance with that day was being 7 people crammed into the back row and the boy next to me puking.

This post is mostly about the following day...

As always, the day starts by getting out of bed at 5am. There was enough noise outside that sleep was impossible anyway beyond 4am as everyone else was also getting ready to move on from the transit hotel we were in. Stephan greeted me with complaints about lack of sleep and we headed out to find our bus. As always, the buses left at about 6am. Transport beyond 6am starts seem to be limited mostly to minibuses unless they are short rides or on major routes.
It was 5 ½ hrs on an often bumpy dirt road to get us dropped off on the side of the road at Shashemene. Shashemene is a big junction town and famous only for its Rasta neighbourhoods, in other words, I had no desire to actually visit it. In the only hassle-free aspect of the day, we caught a shared tuktuk to the bus station to find onward transport to Nazret. Lucky us, it was still early enough that there was a small bus still filling up with people. Unlucky us the touts at the bus station were particularly rude and aggressive, swearing at us and trying to pick fights because we wouldn't give them money or cigarettes. I wouldn't give them my country either and have started telling really annoying people that my country is Kracosia, the fictional country from the movie The Terminal. We had to wait an hour on the bus, not even able to leave it because of the touts waiting for us outside, listening to their abuse.
The ride to Nazret took another 3 ½ hrs with the last 25 km on the main highway linking Addis to Djibouti. Because Ethiopia is landlocked, Djibouti is its main port and so this road is packed with cargo trucks. All the highways in the country are simply 2 lane roads and drivers are constantly swerving around goats, donkeys, cattle, camels, baboons, people and each other. Traffic generally is not that heavy so it's not too bad, but it does get dizzying at times. Ethiopians get car sick fairly often actually.
Having hit the main road and thinking our day was almost over, it actually went like this.....
Stephan: Complaining about something, someone or somewhere as usual.
Me (interrupting): “Our driver is about to kill us. Look.”
Stephan: Looks forward with a sharp intake and holding of breath.
Our driver was attempting to pass a semi-truck and failing miserably. There was no hope whatsoever of passing the guy before smashing into the oncoming semi. No hope at all. It was obvious before he even started the attempt. The bus was gutless and we weren't even going to make it nose to nose with the truck we were trying to pass before we died. He kept going anyway and at the last second, finally realizing that he now didn't even have time to stop and pull back in behind the truck before dying swerved onto the left shoulder (which was dirt and not level), dodged an electricity pole, let 2 oncoming killer trucks pass by before jumping back onto the road and nearly sideswiping the truck behind the one we were originally trying to pass.
Stephan: Jumps up with a very long string of French curses and fist shaking for the driver.
Other passengers: No reaction at all. A few turn to look at this crazy overreacting Frenchman who seems to think something is not right.
Me: Shrug

5 minutes later.....

Stephan: Still complaining, but justified in that it's about the driving habits of Ethiopians (our driver was far from unusual).
Me (interrupting again): “He's doing it again. Look”
Stephan: “Woah woah woah!” Followed by a very long string of French curses yet again for our driver.
This time our driver had tried to pass with no left shoulder for emergency bail out. He would've failed again had not both the truck coming at us and the one we were passing come almost to a stop and we still only survived by inches. We were probably even trying to pass the same truck, since all we'd do is pass a truck and then pull over to drop somebody off and let the trucks pass us again. The line of trucks ahead of us was continuous so there was really no point at all in passing with that kind of traffic. Once we got to Nazret and the road widened a little he tried to pass on the right, driving on the shoulder and forcing people to jump off the road or be killed. But he was still not the only one and had many a fist flying and shouts for the other terrible drivers to let them know what he thought of their skills.

On arrival at the station:

Stephan: Goes to the front of the bus and has some choice words to say to the driver which shall not be repeated here.
The driver: Smiling and laughing points at himself saying “Good, good” and seems perfectly ok by it all.
Me: Shakes head in weary disgust, shrugs and gets off the bus..
At that point Stephan declared his body trashed and that he was going to splurge for a nice place (one with a shower). I walked with him to a nearby hotel. As the $7 price tag was too much for me I left him there and went in search for something more reasonable.
I round the next corner and laying on the ground on the side of the street, face up in front of me was a man with blood and bubbles coming from his mouth and down the side of his face. Having just witnessed quality Ethiopian driving my first thought was that he had been run over and left there dead. A second quick glance showed no brains splattered out behind his head as I expected and he was twitching a little so not quite dead yet. I took my cue from everyone else around me and kept walking like nothing was out of the ordinary...
I did pass by the same street 20 minutes later and he was gone so obviously somebody did do something about it.
Knowing that there had to be cheap rooms back by the bus station, I looped back and into the market beside the station. 3 grubby street boys started following me in an attempt to “help”. This is normal. The 3rd attempt at a room was finally successful. $3 like every night since leaving Addis. But unlike all the others, this one came with no lock and I couldn't find the key for my own lock. And I had 3 guys trying to push into my room demanding money for their assistance. Sigh. Words were unsuccessful so I resorted to physically shoving them out of the doorway and slamming the door shut and trapping myself in the room just to have them pound on the door for a bit. Sigh.
2 hours later I ventured out to eat my 10th injera with vegetables in a row, carrying all my bags with me since I still had no lock for my room.
Being exhausted after a long day and knowing I had to get up at 5am again for the final day to Harar, I declined all further offers from various touts and wannabe friends, fled to my room and shut the door on the world outside. I took stock. A double bed, a small table, electricity but no plug this time so still can't charge anything, a bottle of water for washing and a small plastic pot which I think is a chamberpot. My local hosts in Cameroon were still using them and someone was making that kind of indication here for its use as well. When you see the state of the shared bathrooms, a bottle of water to wash your face and a chamberpot don't seem like bad ideas, but actually I just stick to peeing in my empty water bottle instead...
Went to sleep. Woke up a couple hours later realizing I was under attack by my worst enemy, bedbugs. Bedbugs and I can't coexist under any circumstances. I have been lucky to not have had to deal with them since leaving the bedbug republic (Brisbane) but I was attacked by some sort of blood-sucking weevil-looking beetles a few days ago as they were hiding in my pants and lunching on my legs. Half a dozen massacred bedbugs later, I came to the conclusion that where there are half a dozen dead ones, there are many, many more waiting to take revenge so I resorted to my only available safe option (as long as you are not in the bedbug republic), the floor. Cold, hard, stone floor. It was reasonably clean and I'd only seen 2 small cockroaches on the walls that didn't seem to want to run around on the floor so it was better than the bed. Nevertheless I did not get much more sleep and 5am was actually slow in coming for a change.
The next bus was another 8 ½ hrs to finally reach Harar where I am now. I'm exhausted and filthy so have splurged for a $4 room with a shared shower that actually has cold running water.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

South Omo

The roads are not bad, the buses have seat numbers and a 3+2 seat pattern so it's not as squishy as I had in Cameroon. The scenery really is great but the journeys are long. Really long. The first trip to Jinka took 2 days. They sell you the ticket all the way to Jinka and it is the same bus but they don't push through and keep going. We stopped in Arba Minch for the night after 10 hours of driving. The next morning at 5am I returned to the bus station to find the bus already nearly full but it still didn't leave until 6am. We made it 2 hours further down the road to Konso before stopping for breakfast. At 9am the bus started out of Konso and quickly turned back because of something wrong. I had met 2 local guys on the bus so we hung out waiting to find out what the deal was. At least we were in Konso still so we could find a little cafe across the street to relax at. By 10:30am they announced that the bus was hopelessly broken, would not continue, and started partially refunding tickets. We continued to chill and contemplate our next move. Normally by that time further transport to Jinka would be finished. There was an Estonian couple on the bus that showed up at Arba Minch so they joined our little waiting party also. They were like me in that they didn't have much of a plan and were going to Jinka first to see about arranging things further.

With Shimels in Jinka.

At noon, 2 minibuses showed up at the little minibus station to carry the half a busload of people onward to Jinka. It was much more uncomfortable sitting behind the passenger seat facing backwards for the 3 ½ hr ride just trying not to get motion sickness as we zoomed along the relatively good road around the mountain. It's a bit strange but Konso is up high as is Jinka, but to get there you have to make a long descent and cross a valley before ascending the plateau on the other side. The scenery is pretty, but for some reason I was expecting something more tropical instead of scrubby savanna with acacias, hornbills and cattle herders. Actually, I was expecting the cattle herders as some of the tribes are famous for such things. After all that is why people come here, to see the tribes. I've been told there are something like 18 different groups in the area as one of the guys I met on the bus and later hung out in Jinka with told me. He was doing his thesis on the people in the South Omo valley area. Not all of them can be found or seen in Jinka, but it's the administrative centre for the region. It's mostly a quiet dusty little town with not a whole lot to do but use as a base. It's at 1600m I think so not too hot and not as cold as Addis.
There is a considerable amount of package tourism to the region (and few budget travellers) and it has obviously affected the region. We were quickly mobbed by tour guides, children and drunks when we arrived. We were hours later than we should've been which was unfortunate because Saturday is the main market day in Jinka and I'd been hoping to see some of the tribes in town for the market. Instead it was late afternoon and we (the Estonians and I) were not yet organized and found ourselves having to deal with tour touts. I immediately put on my best defensive tactic (to be obnoxiously non-serious) to weed out the really annoying and find those with a sense of humour to deal with further. Since I didn't really know what the deal was in the area other than there are tribes scattered over a pretty broad area, I listened in on the quotes the Estonians asked for, for transport to nearby places. The lowest quote was for $160/day for a car, driver and guide (or maybe that was without the guide while they were bargaining). This of course is completely outrageous and way out of my budget, even splitting it a few ways. But this is how things are done in Ethiopia. Most tourists seem to rent a car and go on a tour and pay in the range of $120/day for a vehicle and driver. I asked out of curiosity about a motorbike and was quoted $50/day for a ride only slightly longer than the ride to Rhumsiki in Cameroon which cost me $7.
I've heard that the price is so high because the import taxes on vehicles in Ethiopia are ridiculous, but even so, I question the sense of spending $2000+ to see a couple tribal villages by the time you drive down from Addis and back. There are entry fees for every village, photo fees for every person you take a picture of, fees for the chief, road fees, National Park fees, etc etc. Add to that the behaviour of the people, with every kid in Jinka demanding money or a football, the tribal people walking up and demanding you take a photo of them and pay them, hassle from random touts and all the other hassle and it really is no wonder that the Omo valley now has the worst reputation in the country for hassle and being annoying.
But it must be interesting or people wouldn't keep coming. Personally, I'm generally against “people safaris” and have never felt comfortable going to a place specifically to see people or getting in someone's face to take their picture. It's one thing when it's the country or region as a whole and you are visiting for other reasons as well, but to specifically go to a place, treat the people like freak shows, take their photos and run off seems a bit much to me. It affects the subjects and spoils the whole thing. I've been disappointed almost every time I've gone specifically to see tribes so I doubt I'll do it anymore. Thus I never went to see the pygmies in Cameroon specifically, though it's possible to see their villages near Kribi (I'd like to see them at one point but more in passing), and I didn't really want to go invading villages here either. I much prefer the “market” tactic as I did in Pouss. Go to the market where different groups come in to trade, make yourself a non-presence and observe the creatures “in the wild” so to speak, doing what they would normally do. I think it's much more respectful and interesting as long as people leave you alone enough to be able to just observe. Of course that gets ruined too when it becomes a tourist market and there are more tourists than locals or the market is all geared toward selling souvenirs.
So I ended up dumping my stuff in a simple pension and heading over to the market to see what little might be left in the late afternoon. I still saw some of the groups, Banna, Hamer, Mursi, Aari, Bodi, and who knows what else. I actually didn't know because I don't know how to tell the minor ones apart. Sometimes a tout would tell me and I've seen photos of Hamer and Mursi before.
The Mursi and the Hamer are the most obvious and famous in the region. The Mursi are the lip-plate people where the women slice their lips and stretch them to insert a disc. I didn't realize they also did their ears and had some very interesting scarification on their shoulders, arms, chest and belly. They are used to foreigners in Jinka and so while I sat and watched things go by, whenever a Mursi would spot me they would come over and start posing for a photo and asking for money. There really is no point arguing with them. The “money for photo” mentality is so ingrained in the culture here that I just had to accept, take a shot and refuse to continue taking more and more. It is interesting to see for sure and I did take a couple of photos.




The Hamer are not really in the area of Jinka but are a little further southeast of Jinka. I saw 2 in town and maybe saw a couple in the countryside herding cattle when we were driving in. They are famous for the “cow jumping” ceremony where the boys become men in a ritual that involves running along the backs of the cattle. It's possible to see re-enactments of the ceremony or perhaps the real ones themselves, but as I was not in the right area it wasn't really an option for me.
So I just decided to stay in Jinka a couple days. I figured I could probably see what I wanted to see, tick them off the list more or less and generally relax. Because of the distance and because domestic flights in Ethiopia are relatively inexpensive (if bought within the country) I had considered flying one of the directions from Jinka. I'd asked about it but flights are no longer in operation to Jinka for some reason. It's too bad because it would've been cool to see. The airfield is a long, open grass and dirt strip right in the middle of town. I guess when the plane was expected they used to just sound a warning so people could move their animals and themselves off the field.

View over Jinka from the museum. Note the airfield in the middle of town.

I had a nice little room in a pension on the main street a couple minute walk from anywhere I needed. I spent most of my time hanging out with Shimels, my newest friend from the bus. I am enjoying eating injera again with all the various options that go on it, but fortunately for me the long fasting period for the Orthodox Christians here has started so I can get vegetarian “fasting food” all the time. I prefer this option anyway. The meat had been good, but you never know what you'll get with meat.
Speaking of religions, I suppose I have to mention missionaries again. It seems to be a common theme this trip. The other local guy I met on the bus down here from Addis was on his way to Jinka to start prepping for a “gospel crusade” that will occur in Jinka at the end of March. Apparently a huge group of multi-denominational protestant missionary groups (mostly from the US) have made peace with each other enough to head down to Jinka. Apparently they will even have a helicopter to help drop them into different communities and start trying to spread the word. I can't help but shudder when I think of this. Ethiopia is very Orthodox Christian or Muslim depending on the region. The tribes around Jinka in the south Omo region are very traditional and worship whatever. The tribal groups number from in the few thousand to about 100,000 at the largest and are under increasing pressure from tourism and governmental development in the region. There is a large sugar factory being built right in the middle of the Mursi area right now (which is also in the middle of Mago National Park) that is expected to bring in thousands of outsider Ethiopians to settle and work. The government has also toyed with outright banning many of the more controversial tribal practices like lip-plates and female circumcision. So as you can imagine there is already strain in the region toward finding a balance between cultural sensitivity, preservation and progress and then there will be a blitz of missionaries coming in to “save their souls” in no doubt a very ethnocentric way. By the time you retire all this will be no more.....
I was invited by Shimels to go to Mursi town (aka Hana. It is not a Mursi village but a small town.) where they are building the sugar factory as that is where he is basing himself during his work. I got on the bus to go with him but was stopped at the entrance to Mago NP. It seems that even though I'd just be transiting the park, I would still have to pay the park entry fee. The problem was that I couldn't pay it there at the entrance, but had to pay it at the park HQ which is quite a ways off the main road. The bus wouldn't be going there so I couldn't pay so I couldn't enter and had to turn back. Lame. But I did try. Instead I went back to Jinka to hang out some more and make friends with a handful of crazy little kids near the market. It's funny to see them rubbing your skin and then theirs like the whiteness will rub off on them. Most of the time they seem mostly obsessed with either pulling my arm hair or playing with my many necklaces.

The kids are cute once you get past the money issue...

I'm now in Arba Minch again as day 1 of my 3 day journey to get to Harar got me this far...

Thursday, February 16, 2012


It's really weird being back in Addis. I was here 3 years and 3 months ago with Ben, Kees and the family. We stayed at Wim's Holland House for a week or so getting visas and repaired and so got to know them well there. My couchsurfing host this time ended being out of town and so when I changed my flight and arrived in the evening I really had no choice but to fall back on what I already knew and so I am back at Wim's Holland House.
The place hasn't changed much at all. They've now expanded a little and got possession of the place across the street that they were using for emergency last time and now rent rooms out there so that's where I am instead of a tent this time. Rahel (Wim's Ethiopian partner) remembered Kees, mom, the girls and me quite clearly and gave me a warm welcome which was nice. The flood of memories from that time, the whole Africa trip and everything that has happened since (we really had no idea what the future would hold back then) has made this in a way an overwhelming visit. I have been back to a few of the same spots before now (Cairo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Philippines) but not really after so long or in so exactly the same spot with the same people. And unlike those other places, I don't know that I really ever expected to come back here again either, certainly not this soon.
But I also quickly realized that despite being here once before, I don't know the rest of the city at all. Addis is big and so we had been driving around it before or just hanging out at the compound so walking around or trying to get minibuses to somewhere else in the city is completely new. In truth I don't feel much like exploring the city anyway as I have had a cursory, drive through experience already. Thus I've become very inefficient here with my budget, especially in terms of food since I continue to eat most of my meals at Wim's.
I have been out to walk around and get organized of course. My impressions of the city this time around are probably quite different from last time. For one thing I am definitely noticing the altitude a lot more now. We're up at nearly 7000ft and I find myself periodically huffing and puffing and gasping for breath while I am walking around, especially if I'm trying to munch on something at the same time. The sky is blue again and the air really crisp and clear and quite chilly at night (compared to where I was, not where you guys are) and I find myself dehydrating and drying out, in a way even more than when I was in Chad. At least in Chad it was hot and you knew your lips were cracking for a reason. Here it kind of sneaks up on you.
The roads are better here and a lot bigger compared to Yaounde or Douala. The vehicles are in much better condition and it seems there are more private vehicles too and almost no motorcycles at all. Generally it's just a lot more developed and even cleaner. They have garbage cans on the sidewalks for example. There are lots of westerners, lots more begging and people approaching you on the street. Ethiopia is notorious for hassle and it's immediately much much worse than Cameroon. Not that it bothers me yet, but already every overlander and other tourist I have met have complained about the people here. One of the most common comments is that yes the country is amazingly beautiful and definitely worth visiting but it's really hard because you need a long time to do it all and there is absolutely nowhere in the country that is chilled out where you can rest and relax without getting constantly harassed by the locals.
I've dealt with all that before but being on my own on public transport will be rough. My more immediate concern has to do with food. Cameroon had wonderful street food, from grilled fish and meat to baguettes to lots of really good fruit to baton and other local snacks everywhere. In the area I'm in there are lots of little cafes (which seem to do mostly coffee and pastries) but the only regular street food I'm seeing right now is bananas. I saw some fruit stalls and the avocados and other fruit and vegetables on display were terrible looking compared to Cameroon. This is not good as I prefer to grab stuff on the run than actually go sit down somewhere and deal with a menu and considering how much weight I've already lost under good food conditions, this may actually become a health concern... I'm hoping outside the capital things will become much simpler (and cheaper).
Ethiopia feels a lot more restrictive in some ways too. There aren't any moneychangers on the street as currency is tightly controlled here. They have had some problems with inflation and the devaluation of their currency. When we were here in 2008, $1 was worth about 8 Birr, now it is worth 17. I needed to buy some more US dollars for some visas and it was really hard to find a place where I could do that. In the end I had to go to the central office of the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (they are the main bank and one of 2 that have ATM's we can use I think) and could only buy dollars once I gave them my passport, airline ticket out of the country and receipt from the ATM of their bank where I got my local currency in the first place. Lucky I even got a receipt because the last 2 times I've used the ATM they didn't give me one... There is also only 1 telecom company here as well, so to get a SIM card I needed to give a copy of my passport and a photo and fill out a form, and the price of calls and internet use is on the high side too. I'm sure I mentioned it before, but Ethiopia runs on the Julian calendar of 13 months and has it's own time, where 0 is our 6am. Last time we didn't really see that but now that I'm out on the street more dealing with people I've run across it a few times.
Normally I wouldn't've stayed in Addis for as long as I have but I needed to get 2 visas first before I left. One of the reasons I changed my flight was so I could be here from the beginning of the week to make sure I could get everything done before the weekend. My first visa stop was for Djibouti. In the end they were bastards and my impression of the country is already spoiled unfortunately. The 1 month tourist visa should be $40. When you apply now they tell you that they no longer have the 1 month visa stickers so you have to buy a 3 month visa for $130. Never mind that 3x40 is only 120, and that they print the info on the visa sticker anyway so it shouldn't matter what kind of sticker they have. Sounds like a scam though it could be gross incompetency. I had no choice in the end and rationalized it by remembering that I've paid a lot more for other visas and normally I think you need a letter from your own embassy saying you can go and for Canada that costs $50 but they didn't require it of me this time. But I did have some words for the people there and they got rude and I nearly got kicked out and refused a visa anyway. In comparison, the visa for Somaliland was much easier to get. Friendly staff and they do the visa on the spot for $40. I was in and out of there in about 15 minutes.
But speaking of visas, I was talking to an overlander here that has been going for 2 ½ years continuously around Africa in his Land Rover and from what he was telling me about the latest rules for visas and entries for different countries, it would be impossible for us to repeat the trip we did in 2008. Apparently Angola is no longer issuing visas and everyone is getting even more stuck than before, the DRC is starting to issue biometric visas and you need to apply in your home country, Ethiopia no longer issues visas for overland travel from any embassy south of Ethiopia so you have to mail your passport to Europe or something to get one or just fly in and get it on arrival, and other countries are moving more toward requiring you to apply from your home country only, including some of the more tourist friendly countries like Ghana. Thus in answer to all the criticism and comments I get about why travel now and not later, once again I emphasize my answer of “because I can”. There is no guarantee that things will be possible later and I have felt things getting more restrictive for non-package tourism all over the world in the last few years. Even Ethiopia is taking photos of people and has fingerprint scanners at the airports now.
One thing I had to get done here was get a haircut. Ethiopians have very different hair styles than in Cameroon. A woman with braids is a rarity here instead of the norm and the guys actually have some hair on their heads. Maybe that's why not every other shop is a barber shop or hair salon like before. Instead there are lots of shoe shiners on the sidewalks (people aren't all wearing flipflops either here). I had had my head and beard trimmed in Cameroon and ended up with the 2nd worst haircut in the world (nobody will ever get a haircut as bad as James in N'Djamena) with some serious length patchiness. There could only be one solution and that was to have it all cut off and start all over again. Since I was already in the barber shop I decided to have a shave as well. I don't know why but I like getting a shave. There's something nice about having someone else do the work for you and it makes me miss India and all the street shavers... Anyway, my head and face are now freezing.
Another thing I've noticed is that there is less traditional dress here and the women's clothes are much less colourful and vibrant as they are in other parts of Africa. So far....
My next destination will be to the far south of Ethiopia, so the Omo valley which is famous for several different, very traditional, “remote and uncivilized” tribes. I've heard it's now the worst hassle section of the country and has been in many ways completely ruined by the tourism that it gets but I still gotta go see them. It will take 2 days on the bus just to get down there. Somehow that 2 day trip only costs 50% more than my short taxi ride from the airport, yet another reason why I really hate taxis. I don't expect to be online in the area either so I guess it'll be a while before my next post.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Leukerbad Switzerland

This trip came as a very last minute decision, mostly influenced by Kees. Being a flat-lander you can easily imagine how eager he was to go snowboarding. So off we went, the two mothers, Kees and me, cruising twelve hours from Holland, through Germany and down to Leukerbad, Switzerland to hit the slopes.

Kees’ mother, Maria, being nearly 80 (but looking not a day past 60) spent the days reading a book, exploring the little village on foot and drinking coffee in little wooden cabins. Some may think this would be a long ride just to sit and drink coffee but to my amazement this was the first time she had ever seen mountains!! It’s something I would not be able to comprehend as a Vancouverite but I love discovering these kinds of differences. After a long hard life growing up on a farm, facing WW2 in her own backyard, working, raising four children on her own and previously having little or no time for travel we were more than happy to bring her along.

Just five minutes’ walk from both ski rentals and the gondola we really had the ideal location.

Kees brought his snowboard from home and we rented our equipment.

After mix matching bits and pieces we could find around the house and visiting the kringloop (secondhand shop)we each spent a grand total of 7euros on our wardrobes. And considering the limited budget, I would say I was looking pretty spiffy in my late 60’s overalls which I found unused, still with the 150 tag on the back for only 4.90Euro! Huh huh what was that, Ammon? Did you say you’re proud of us?!

The last time Mom or I went skiing must have been just under ten years ago, but I didn’t think about that too much.

The steep gondola ride took us above the cloud and tree line where we found the sun again, shining down on a million particles of fairy dust dancing on the crisp air.

The old jagged mountains were towering around us and for a moment I wondered why I’d hiked two weeks to reach Everest Base camp. The Matterhorn, and no I don’t mean Disneylands famous, but the actual real live mountain could be seen in the distance, a genuine surprise to top off our vacation. Truly magical.

I snapped into those long unmanageable skis and everything became a lot less magical and a lot more intimidating. You know when you forget what somebody looks like but you know you’ll recognize them as soon as you see them...well, when the skiis, mountain and I met once again, I had NO idea who they were!! And I suddenly found myself stranded at the top of a treacherously steep slope with no way to turn back...

I was slightly disappointed that if I flew off the cliff and died that heaven couldn’t possibly be any more white or beautiful. I felt like I was standing at the very top of the Goliath (or the biggest rollercoaster you’ve seen) with skiis which are longer and heavier than you ever remember them being. They’re tied to your feet fussing and argueing, unable to work together in any kind of harmonious way and I’m thinking “what the heck am I going to do about this? I can’t do this! I’ve never done this before in my life!”

As if opening a window to my past I watched the tiniest little people, probably aged 5, zip by me. We all know “It’s like riding a bike you never forget how” but let me tell you, this does not translate to “you’ll hop on and be an expert”. Stupidly, like my first bike experience after years without riding, I fell over three times, once was while just standing...trying to keep my poles and skiis from wrestling and getting in an utter tangle.

By the second run, and after a lot of cursing and some hints from Mom, luckily, I had got it back and was ever so grateful for those lessons I’d taken as a kid.

After a long four hours, burning out my lazy writers legs, we caught the last gondola of the day.

Later, and half asleep, the four of us marched in a parade of white matching hotel slippers and bath robes down to the “water world”. Mom’s robe was nearly dragging on the floor and Kees’ showing off his thighs.

We completely spoiled ourselves in sauna, steam room, Jacuzzi and pools.

The special thing about Leukerbad is its natural hot springs. The water that flows in is 51C but they add cold water to make it a lovely 36C. The water was heated by the Earth’s core, and so lava being one of my biggest fascinations these days, it was one of the closest and most romantic things. It’s like water from the centre of the earth! That is aaaaamazing! No doubt, this was the best pool I have ever seen or swam in! I would go back to Leukerbad just for this reason, it was so wonderful. Thinking back on it, I had thought Suriname’s pool in the middle of the jungle was one of, possibly the best, but it didn’t compare to the stunning mountains and piles of snow on the ground around you. It was so warm and yet your hair would freeze up into icicles like in the movie Titanic.

Maria was absolutely in awe. When we left to another pool indoors that was very hot and designed like a cave she insisted on staying out with the moon. So impressed by the snow capped mountains and swimming she almost froze her head off, unable to snap herself out of the spell. See, too much fun can kill ya! Surprisingly after two days of skiing we were not nearly as stiff as we had expected, possible due to the natural healing elements in the thermal baths?

The village was quiet and I liked its family atmosphere with the dozens of tiny little people whizzing past on the runs. Coincidentally arriving the week before holidays started, you could say we really had perfect timing. On the Saturday morning the breakfast buffet was already much more crowded than the previous days, a clear indication that it was time to go!

Packing our bags we embarked on a twelve hour journey home, not including the nice stopover made in Freiburg, Germany to visit our first and only Dutch couch surfer and good friend Hein. We enjoyed homemade apple pie, spaghetti and coffee to keep us all awake. With Hein’s German partner Sabine and our English and Dutch crew, we had a three-way language conversation happening. Bits and pieces of which were understood here and there by all but Hein and Kees who speak all three fluently. Okay, maybe Kees just pretends to know more German than he does but nonetheless it was fun to hear him speaking it.

At the end of this holiday all I could think was, “I’ll be hard pressed, after so many gorgeous holidays, to find the perfect honeymoon location.” Oh, the silly worries of a 21 year old girl

Till next time

Leaving Cameroon

I'm now in Douala. It's the economic capital of Cameroon and is even bigger and more crazy than Yaounde. I'm being hosted by a local again in some run down neighbourhood, though I'm not convinced that any of them are not rundown. I am quite surprised at how destroyed a lot of the streets are here in the city. Huge mud-filled potholes make for some very bad traffic problems. It's the dry season but we've had some pretty hard rain at night. Douala doesn't have the best of reputations and the PCVs told me they aren't even allowed to enter the city. I wouldn't be here normally either but my flight leaves from here and in fact I changed it to leave a little early and will go tomorrow.
My flight is to Ethiopia, where I'll spend nearly 6 weeks. In a cruel kick in the teeth, my flight will have a quick stop in Malabo, capital of Equatorial Guinea, to pick up additional passengers. I asked but there's no way for me to make a stop over there. I guess that country will have to wait...
I was always more excited for the Ethiopian leg of the trip than the Cameroonian one as there is more that I know I actually want to see there. It will be interesting to see how different it is being fully exposed to the hassles there (the Ethiopians are quite notorious for it in a way) as we were quite buffered from it being in the truck last time. I suspect it will be quite different overall and very different from Cameroon too and will probably drive me crazy by the end but the rewards should be worth it as it's a very beautiful country.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Southern Cameroon

At this point I'm pretty sure I was enjoying the north more than the south/west though my body wasn't. The south is a lot more developed and comfortable (in a relative sense) but there isn't as much I wanted to see down here. Yaounde turned out to be a disappointment as my host was closer to crazy than normal. My lungs started to get better almost immediately so that was good.
As I said before my goal was to get into Equatorial Guinea next so I took a bus 2 ½ hrs from Yaounde to Ebolowa, waited 2 hrs, caught the next bus 2 ½ hrs down to the border town of Kye Ossi. It's a tri border crossing as Gabon's border is also there. Got stamped out of Cameroon. Walked over to the Eq. Guinea side of the barriers and was hauled into the immigration post and told after a few minutes of waiting that I would not be allowed to cross.
I asked why not as this was only partially unexpected. Equatorial Guinea is notorious for not letting people in and being restrictive. It would probably be the least touristed country I'd ever visit if I could get in. It's a messed up thing but on paper Eq. Guinea looks like an African success story. It is small, stable and has a high income per capita (for Africa) because it's economy is based on oil. What you don't know about the place is that nobody can get in, nobody is allowed to do anything and the government is ridiculously corrupt and isolationist. Maybe it has something to do with them being the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa and so no colonial ties to anyone else...
It's very hard to get any travel information about the place and I don't think I've ever heard or read a good thing said about the country either. I was hoping to get across because Americans are the only nationality that can get in without a visa (because they are the ones helping extract the oil). It is also co-hosting the Africa Cup soccer championships at the moment with Gabon, so the thought was that could either work for me of against me too. Maybe they'd be a little more lax on letting people in so they could have spectators or maybe they would only want people that had actually booked tickets for the games somehow.
Anyway, I was told that the road (ie land border crossing) was closed to all foreigners and I'd have to fly if I wanted in. That's retarded and something I hadn't heard of before. Maybe that was how they wanted to eliminate casual tourism resulting from the Africa Cup? I know that to go anywhere in the country you need expensive travel permits (which I wouldn't have on my way to the main city) and you also need a camera permit to still not be allowed to photograph anything. I made a small fuss about maybe just being allowed to cross for the day to the border town, but they got unfriendly quickly and just started pointing back to Cameroon. So I failed. The Cameroon customs was nice enough and called the others crazy. The lady at immigration chewed me out for a bit though. Apparently stamping me twice was a terrible inconvenience.
Had to wait for a bit before getting the next bus 2 ½ hrs back to Ebolowa to stay for the night. Net result was a very long day to end up in the wrong place and no new country to show for it. The next morning I continued back to Yaounde and transferred to another bus to go to Kribi. Kribi is on the southwest coast and is arguably the nicest beach town in the country. It is certainly built up for some tourism as there are quite a few small hotels scattered about. The beach is not wide at all but goes all along the coast as far as I can tell. I arrived too late to visit the beach or do any more than just get oriented. The next morning I woke up to rain. The first time I've had rain since this trip started. Typical. It didn't last long but the sky was threatening all day. That morning the power went out in town too (and was out for the next 36 hours, once again thwarting my attempts at getting on the internet)
I went to Lobe Waterfall a few km outside of town. Its claim to fame is that it is one of the only waterfalls in the world that falls directly into the ocean. It's not very high and more of a little river cascading over some rocks directly into the sea. I can't imagine that it isn't more common around the world. It is dry season so maybe when there is a lot more water it is more convincing as a true and powerful waterfall. I still like waterfalls though.

Lobe Waterfall at the dry season.

Looking down the waterfall into the sea.

I talked to some people in Kribi and learned that yes, the border with Eq. Guinea is currently closed (there is another crossing near here at Campo) because of the Africa Cup as they didn't want hordes of people coming across. I get the impression that even the Cameroonians don't like Eq. Guinea and are also not treated well over there. So I didn't bother to try crossing at Campo.
My best friend in Kribi quickly became one of the coconut sellers out on the road. He was from the northwest so spoke English and as there are no avocados in Kribi I had to switch to coconuts to eat. I'd hang around and joke with him and eat coconut when I wasn't sitting down at the beach.

Lorenzo the coconut guy in Kribi.

My second full day in Kribi had better weather for sitting at the beach and watching the fishermen at work. They pull the nets in here the same as they do everywhere else in the world I've seen fishermen on the beach. These guys pulled in mostly leaves and mud though and a depressing number of fish.

Kribi beach.

Fishing like everywhere else.

As at Rhumsiki, there is a slight amount of harassment in Kribi from touts and souvenir sellers but it's only really noticeable because there is absolutely none everywhere else I've been. I've seen a few white tourists in Kribi but even then it's only a tiny number and most actually look like residents with local friends or partners.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

East Cameroon/CAR

I've still been very busy, moving fast and often, and have not seen much internet at all since I last posted. Either the network in the whole town will be down or I'm just too exhausted at the end of the day to go looking for it. I've even met a guy running an auberge (the cheap guesthouses in Cameroon) that didn't even know what an internet cafe was....
In Ngaoundere I met up with a handful of PCVs and eventually followed one, Emma, back to Meiganga, the town that she is volunteering in. Yes Shean another female host though I'll have you know I'm a perfect gentleman (covered in many layers of rough). Actually, it seems that the only couchsurfing hosts in northern Cameroon are foreign females and they have complained to me that there is a huge lack of male volunteers in the region which makes some of the work harder to do, as a single female culturally is severely hindered in what she can accomplish socially. It must be hard for the local strict Muslim population to start taking seriously all these very forward, independent, single Western females that come in and start tell them what's what instead of focusing on raising their 5th child... I do wonder a little about it all because the way a lot of the volunteering work goes on here is that there is a huge bias toward empowering women. That's all well and good, and certainly the women need to be educated and stop tolerating the abuse they get, but if you don't change the mentality of the men then you just end up creating even more conflict don't you? Men are the aggressor and have much more power in this society and as women are supposed to submit to men (this applies to the Christian men too, the other day I saw a 5'1 female come to blows in the bus with a big 6' guy when he took her seat and wouldn't give it back. I was shocked that he was actually physically fighting back and people were watching, though he lost in the end.), how much does it help to educate them about things like condom use, when they have no say over its use in practice? Anyway, you've got to start somewhere I guess but it'll be a long time in truly changing over here.
The road 3 hrs south to Meiganga was the beginning of a nasty stretch of bad roads for me though it is being worked on like many of the others throughout the country. I was in Meiganga for 3 days hanging out and generally getting covered in dust and fighting off a cold. There is not a single paved road in Meiganga and the red dirt creates an orange dust that covers everything. Emma is the most brilliant person ever, having gotten herself a water heating coil so she can have hot bucket showers. Why didn't we think of getting one of those before? Oh the simple pleasures in a simple life. Some of these volunteers are living it very, very rough. All of them seem to have some local kid running a lot of their errands for them though like getting water from the open well down the street or doing basic shopping. Volunteers supporting the child labour scene? Hmmm...
Meiganga was sort of the beginning of the end for my lungs unfortunately. With the constant dust, sand, wood smoke and exhaust they've been more or less a constant worry for me, right back from early on in Chad. As soon as I left Meiganga I finally cracked, bought a new inhaler and have since been living on it like some sort of junkie just to get by. From Meiganga it took 8 hours to get to Bertoua where I met and hung out with (but could not be hosted by) some more PCVs. Got some advice from them and the next morning took the roughest ride of this trip so far to Kenzou.
Kenzou is a border town 210km east of Bertoua on a dusty, washboarded road travelled mostly by logging trucks with huge trees heading in from logging operations in eastern Cameroon, CAR and Congo. The companies send their worst buses out on roads like this so we were actually on some old beat up thing that has the smallest spaces to sit ever. It was physically impossible to put my feet on the floor, so I had to have them wedged up against the cage in front of me separating the front cabin from everyone in the back. I was wedged in like this for the 8 ½ hr journey. They could've rolled the bus and I wouldn't've moved at all. Fortunately I'd been forewarned on the dust factor and had my cadmoul (my Chadian head wrap) on to protect me as much as possible.
A funny thing about the transport here in Cameroon. There are many different transport companies with their own little compounds scattered around the towns, all serving different destinations. When you buy a ticket (and they don't charge extra for luggage which is a nice change from most of Africa as I recall) they write your name on it and keep it, and then call out your name and give you your ticket to get on the bus when it's finally time to leave. The only consolation to arriving early and having to wait so long for the bus to fill is that your name is high on the list so you board first and can get a good seat. Once you've got the prime seat you just start praying that the big mama won't sit on your bench and the one guy that's going to get off early does... 5 across on these benches is actually ok if the 5 people are all little butts like me, but heaven forbid 2 big mamas get the same row. Sardines have it easy then. For me the amusing thing has been seeing all the funny variants of my name on the tickets. I've had anything from Amone to Herman, Edmond, Emon, etc. The one time I tried Richard instead I ended up with Wiltord on my ticket. Is my pronunciation so bad??? Another nice result of all the road construction here is that transportation is getting cheaper as well as faster.
I went to Kenzou because Julia and Geoff, the PCVs posted there, were able to tell me about the border crossing with CAR and had a contact on the opposite side. Kenzou would also be the first stop on the road heading down to the southeast of Cameroon, which heads to Congo and is the most remote and challenging part of the country to visit. Unfortunately by the time I got to Kenzou I felt so bad generally that I didn't think physically I could make it any further and I also had some concerns about the amount of time involved to do so anyway. Mostly though I was just unmotivated and stressed. So I didn't go any further into eastern Cameroon, and I only did a day trip across the border to CAR.
Maybe just a single day in the CAR border town of Gamboula sounds like cheating for the country count, but I've been earning the lines on my map and I do actually have a story of doing something in Gamboula.
In Kenzou, because the PCVs weren't there (they were still in Bertoua) they put me in contact with some local friends of theirs and I ended up staying at one guy's place for the night. The following day he arranged for a friend to take me the ½ hr moto ride to the border (which is the main method of getting there anyway). There have been numerous stops for police throughout Cameroon on all my journeys but thus far I have not had any problems at any of them. It's actually kind of funny but I give them my US passport, they look at it, see that I was born in Canada and say “Oh, you are Canadian” even though I just gave them a US passport. In the Cameroonian mind Canada is interesting because we are the only 2 countries in the world that are officially bilingual French and English. Of course that means they give me crap for not speaking French to them also. I refuse to talk to uniforms in French. I only try talking French to people I want to talk to. I never want to talk to the uniforms, they insist upon talking to me, so I make it hard on them in the hopes they'll give up earlier in frustration. They also sort of randomly look at the pages pretending they know which one has the right visa on it. I don't think they really check. The occasional one will also ask for your vaccination card in addition to a passport in the hopes of you missing something but nobody has actually asked for money or anything yet.
So the 2 Cameroonian stops on the way to the border were fine also. On the CAR side I had to do a little bit of work to get out of paying the police and immigration but I had enough time for that because my moto driver realized his tire was flat and had to pump it up while he was waiting for me! I did get through after explaining I was just going for a day trip. If you just go for the day to Gamboula you don't even need a visa and they won't stamp you in or out either. What happens is that once in Gamboula centre the police station there (which is normally where you would actually get stamped in) simply confiscates your passport for the day so you don't head further into the country. Despite having a visa and technically being allowed to go anywhere, they treated me the same as the PCVs when they come across and wouldn't stamp me :( I walked around a bit and dealt with these police while my driver changed his tire and found Gamboula to be more or less the same as everywhere else around here except smaller. It would've been a thoroughly boring adventure if not for the fact that it wasn't actually my destination. Once we had a tire again we continued another couple of km to a Swedish Evangelical Baptist (EEB) mission and hospital where Julia knew some of the missionaries.

Gamboula, CAR.

I didn't even know their names or what I was getting myself into and just wanted something to do so I went over there and started asking for the Americans (it's pretty much all American now and the Swedes are more or less gone these days). Eventually directed to a very nice set of homes I met first Ellen, a young Swedish woman who had recently arrived and was staying for 2 months as a volunteer after just finishing med school. She then introduced me to the Cones (Jean and Kim), an older American missionary couple who had first been in the DRC (until evacuated 10 years ago) and then CAR since. They were very welcoming and invited me to stay for lunch and chat.
The stories they had to tell were incredible. They work with the cattle-herding nomads in the area, the hospital, some agricultural experimentation projects and other things in the region. The stories of banditry were kind of scary as well. The bandits mostly target the nomads because the nomads are a low class in the region and nobody cares to help them, and because the nomads have a large potential wealth in the form of all their cattle. Their herds have been decimated over the last decade or so, having to sell them off to avoid torture or ransom back their kidnapped children. Many are now being forced to settle down to a more pastoral way of life because they don't have the number of cattle necessary to continue their way of life. Sad.
In 2003 the Cones and their mission group lost literally everything to bandits and were forced to move to their present location working with the Swedish Baptist group so they could be close to the border and able to run if anything more happened. In the last 2 years the area has been getting more stable though. As I have heard also in Chad, they said that the most likely people to steal from you are your own guards and that the Muslims are more trustworthy generally than the Christians. Kim is also an avid hunter and has even done elephant and hippo culling for the CAR government. The things I never thought I'd hear a missionary say....
As further proof that the missionary world over here is small, they actually used to work with Grace Brethren (which later became ENVODEV in Chad though not in CAR) and they know (from a long time ago) the guys running ENVODEV now. Maybe I jumped in a little too deep when I did that bit of name dropping because I got a full history of major missionary players, groups and events in the area for the last 20 years or so, like I was supposed to know all of them. Oh well, it was interesting to once again be fully welcomed in and openly spoken to about what's going on. Kim showed me around the agricultural experimentation project (not actually run by the mission) nearby and Ellen gave me a tour of the hospital before lunch. The hospital was an eye opener, as they usually are in the third world. This one is apparently not too bad as far as these things go because they don't actually have to recycle their needles. Having said that, all nursing care is provided by family members, which means that outside the small one-storey buildings with the rooms for the patients it looks a little like a camp-out with families cooking, cleaning and sleeping outside all the rooms. There are even pigs and chickens running around on the grounds...
Surgeries are basic but they do what they can, though often too late. As I have always suspected, hernias are a common problem here and it's no wonder when you see the size of the loads they carry around. While I was there I saw a young woman who had been in active labour all day and having trouble with it. As I was leaving the compound in the late afternoon, I ran into Ellen again as she was on her way back to the hospital to the surgery. Apparently the baby had already died and the mother was a surgical mess....

The EEB hospital in Gamboula.

I returned to Kenzou for the night and have since made my way to the capital, Yaounde, via another night in Bertoua, thus finally linking up the lines on my map. My first thought on getting back on real roads again was how much I missed them. My first thought on entering Yaounde was how much I have not missed big African cities. I'm not in the same area that we were in the first time we came to Yaounde in 2008 and am getting a much closer look at how grungy it can be, by couchsurfing with a local in a poorer neighbourhood. I recall it being not all that bad as far as African capitals go, but really it's a sprawling mess and I could live without it.
It has been interesting to undergo the gradual transition from a hot, sahel Muslim area through all the intermediate stages to a now very Christian, tropical, humid region. It's the same country but feels completely different. There is a lot more fruit on offer here, it is cooler and cloudier and the people even look different physically in addition to their clothing, cuisine and architectural styles. The changes have not been subtle at all and I think it's only because this is the same country that there is overlap making the changes more gradual than they should be. I think if you took the train from Yaounde to Ngaoundere the abrupt change would make you wonder if you hadn't crossed a border in the night. Cameroon has been described as the complete Africa in miniature and it may be true. It feels like it has a bit of most major African ecosystems, and a huge diversity of peoples, cuisines, cultures, wildlife, etc. It's actually a wonder that this country hasn't experienced more tourism development than it has.
But then again, maybe it's not so surprising given the isolation it has experienced because of the turbulent history of all of its immediate neighbours. It has been comparatively quite stable but not without its own problems. Corruption is rampant but the police hassle of foreigners is slowly getting better now. I think things can and will improve starting with the improved road infrastructure being built. I have talked to many that also feel things are starting to improve, at least here. They seem relatively optimistic but I've talked to a bunch of locals in different areas that have expressed anger at the French and don't like Sarkozy. Figuring Obama would still be popular in Africa I was surprised to find out that they'd also cooled off on him a lot too. The reasoning is interesting. They are mad at Obama for allowing the French to kill Gaddafi in Libya (as they see it) because Gaddafi is/was apparently quite popular with his pan-African rhetoric over the years. You still see Obama everything anyway. Obama jeans, Obama hair salon, Obama cafe, etc.
One thing Cameroon has going for it is that it doesn't have the same sort of religious intolerance and extremism problems within its borders, like those that have plagued Nigeria and others recently though Nigeria has accused many extremists of coming from Cameroon to cause problems in Nigeria.
I read an interesting book the other day called Dead Aid. It's by a Zambian lady (I can't remember her name but I think the last name was Moyo) and is basically anti-aid in nature. I think she doesn't argue her points as much as she should've but I tend to agree with most of what she says about the overall effects of all the aid we pump into Africa as a whole.
Crime remains a problem here also. The PCVs have told multiple tales of armed robbery of their people here. One of my hosts was robbed with 22 other PCVs at gun point in a bar in Kribi last year and in December 10 other volunteers were also robbed at gun point after their home was broken into by a group in the anglophone northwest region.
Hopefully my lungs will start to recover but with the pollution here in the capital, they may not. I really need to do laundry but haven't been anywhere long enough, nor been in conditions where it would really even be practical to attempt it. I'm an idiot for bringing only one pair of pants and now they've become mostly orange instead of dark blue... My next destination and goal will be to briefly enter mainland Equatorial Guinea though I think it will probably end up just being another day trip type of crossing in the end. I really don't have that much interest in putting much effort into countries whose official policy is to make things impossible for visitors....
Sorry for not as many photos this time. I find I no longer even try to take photos out the window of buses really. I've probably got thousands of them already anyway and they just don't work out very well. Never mind that you can't move anyway when squished in the big mama row....