Cameroon: Beautiful mountains and beaches, but not easy to get around

June 16th, 2014 by bobebill

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June 15, 2014
By KATHLEEN LYNN
STAFF WRITER
The Record (NorthJersey.com)

The highway cop leaned on the taxi’s window and studied the cards proving that my son and I had been vaccinated against yellow fever. He wasn’t happy.

“You got your yellow fever shot, but what about polio? Meningitis? You need those shots, too,” he said sternly.

That was the last question I expected to be asked when the cop pulled over the car as we headed to the beach in Cameroon. (Can you imagine a state trooper on the New Jersey Turnpike checking your medical history?) We weren’t sure about his motivations; was he looking for a bribe? But we argued that while we’d had all the recommended shots, Cameroon only required proof of the yellow fever vaccine.

After we went round in circles for a bit, my daughter, a Peace Corps volunteer living in Cameroon, defused the situation by simply saying, “My family is just here to see your beautiful country.”
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“They think Cameroon is beautiful?” the cop asked, his tone softening, and he let us go on our way.

The encounter summed up a lot about our recent trip to Cameroon to visit my daughter. The West African nation offers beautiful mountains and beaches, as well as friendly people, but it’s not the easiest place to travel. Aside from unexpected traffic stops, it’s very hot under the near-equatorial sun, and it lacks a sophisticated tourist infrastructure. Water, electricity and paved roads? As in many developing nations, not always available.
Cameroon offers beautiful beaches like this one in Kribi.

But we were able to navigate it all with the help of an expert guide: my daughter.

I’ve always been the travel planner in our family, so it was a turning point for me to hand over control to a daughter who knew much better how to make her way around the country, whether she was haggling with cab drivers (forcefully, fearlessly and often in French) or demonstrating the importance of small talk in Cameroonian culture.
Cameroon offers beautiful beaches like this one in Kribi.

We spent time at the nation’s two most prominent Atlantic shore resorts — Limbe and Kribi — and both were lovely, with excellent, just-caught seafood. But the heart of our journey was the time we spent in my daughter’s new home, a midsize market town near Mount Kupe in the rainforest of the Southwest Region of Cameroon. My daughter’s friends and work partners overwhelmed us with their warmth and generosity, sharing their aspirations for the future.

Getting to her town was an adventure in itself. The paved road ends some distance away, so after getting out of the car we’d hired for the journey, we climbed onto the backs of moto-taxis (wearing helmets, as required by the Peace Corps) and rode 20 minutes uphill on a rutted, rocky dirt road into town.

Once there, we spent a fair amount of time “strolling and greeting” — walking around the town, meeting my daughter’s new friends and work partners. Cameroon is divided between French and English speakers, reflecting its split colonial past, but in her town, the language is pidgin English, with its own rhythms.

To ask, “How are you?” my daughter just said, “How?”

“No, fine,” was the usual answer. (The “no” means “no problems.”)

“How for work?”

“No, we are just managing like this.”

A restaurant chef invited us to her home for lunch and cooked a feast of white beans and plantains; my son said it was the most memorable meal he’d ever had. The grocer at the tiny kiosk where my daughter buys her daily provisions gave me a gift of eggs, which left me — as a middle-class American — deeply humbled.

Many people, especially women, seemed especially excited to honor my status as a mother: “This is the mommy? Welcome, Mommy, you are very welcome!” they would cry, air-kissing me on the cheeks three times.

We visited the agricultural projects my daughter is involved in — one to teach farmers how to grow mushrooms, another teaching how to grow the moringa tree, which is used for both medicine and food. We also visited a carpenter friend, who told us that his 2-year-old son will not work with wood but will become educated; and a couple who opened an orphanage after their own children grew up, and now care for 13 children — with no government aid.

My daughter’s house has running water only about 45 minutes a day, so we had to get up around 6:15 every morning to fill half a dozen buckets to wash ourselves, our clothes and the dishes, as well as flush toilets. I spent some time relaxing on her covered side porch, watching as schoolchildren with backpacks and men and women carrying wood, bananas or tree limbs on their heads walked past. A path nearby winds up the steep hill, past cocoa, coffee and palm plantations.

In Limbe, we stayed at a hotel that was a 20-minute cab ride outside town on a beach of chocolate-colored volcanic sand dotted by dramatic rock formations. We rode (mostly gentle) waves while looking up at Mount Cameroon, a volcanic mountain that is the tallest in sub-Saharan Africa. One morning on the beach, we watched half a dozen fishermen line up to pull their net to shore with the morning’s catch. My daughter’s Peace Corps friend jogged over to help them and was rewarded with a fish, which our hotel cooked for us that night. Like all the fresh fish we ate at the shore, it was sweet and full of flavor.

We visited the Limbe Botanical Garden, which was started in 1892 by German settlers in Cameroon and is still a research organization studying the region’s horticulture.

We also toured the Limbe Wildlife Center, which houses primates rescued from the wild — often babies whose mothers were killed for food.

We spent time watching a large colony of drills, which are closely related to mandrills, going about their day: mothers shielding their babies from nosy neighbors, juveniles roughhousing, individuals grooming one another. Drills are among Africa’s most endangered species. Nearby, in their own large enclosure, chimpanzees engaged in what sounded like a bar fight, with a lot of shrieking.

At Kribi, we stayed in a hotel right on a curving beach. The restaurant next door could have been at the Jersey Shore, with covered wooden decks overlooking the surf and a menu that included calzone and brick-oven pizza. We took a side trip to the nearby Lobe Falls, where fresh water tumbles over rocks into a saltwater cove.

Guides at the falls offer canoe rides upriver to a Pygmy village. Our guidebook, “The Rough Guide to West Africa,” dismissed the Pygmy village as phony, but we decided it was worth taking a chance; at the very least, we’d have a pleasant ride on the Lobe River. We struck a deal with a guide to take us the next day for $10 each, plus gifts for the villagers of salt, soap and rice, which we bought at tiny stalls near our hotel.

After a tranquil 45-minute ride up the beautiful river, we reached the village, which consisted of six or eight structures in a clearing near the riverbank. A total of about a dozen people were there; others, we were told, were hunting in the dense forest. We felt awkward, imagining how strange it would be to have tourists come into our living rooms to scrutinize our lives.

But my daughter — once again — was able to break through some of the strangeness of the situation and make a small connection. She sat down to play with some of the small children and asked our guide for the tribal words to say “thank you” and “your babies are beautiful,” coaxing smiles from the proud mothers.

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GETTING THERE: A number of carriers, including Delta, Air France, Brussels Airlines, Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines offer flights to Douala or Yaounde, Cameroon’s two largest cities.

VISA: The Cameroon government requires a tourist visa, costing $120; ca6meroonembassyusa.org. The visa application must include proof of a yellow-fever vaccination. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends vaccines or medications for polio, meningitis, typhoid, malaria and hepatitis A.

LIMBE

* Tsaben Beach Hotel, Limbe. Oceanview cottages start around $24 a night. tsabenbeachhotel.com

* Limbe Wildlife Centre: Limbewildlife.org

* Arne’s Cafe at the wildlife center (my daughter said this is where backpackers would eat, if Cameroon had backpackers). arnescafe.com

KRIBI

* Hotel Les Polygones, BP 97, Kribi. Oceanfront rooms start around $50 a night.

* Au Plaisir du Gout restaurant next door. Offers pizza, calzones, omelets, seafood. auplaisirdugout.com

GETTING AROUND: My daughter and her friends often take inexpensive minibuses in which the passengers are crammed onto the seats and their belongings stacked high on top. But we took larger, Greyhound-style buses and often hired taxis, at reasonable cost, for long drives. In Kribi, most taxis are moto-taxis, where you climb on the back of a motorbike. In Limbe and Douala, passengers often share taxis, with drivers squeezing four people into the back seat and two people into the front passenger seat. The person sitting between the passenger and the driver — basically on the gear console — is known as the petit chauffeur.
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Email: lynn@northjersey.com; Twitter: @KathleenLynn3

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