Monday, January 23, 2012

Northern Cameroon

Wow, I've been really busy since leaving Chad. I left James in the SIL compound for an early attempt to get into Cameroon, having heard mostly bad stories about the border crossing. In fact, it turned out to be one of the easiest I've done in Africa. Maybe because it was a Sunday or because I was there not long after it opened there were very few people and in the offices getting stamps there was only me. I guess the locals freely cross. They are rebuilding the road from the border to N'Djamena so it was a 10 minute ride or so on dusty gravel road to the bridge over the river that marks the border between the countries. I had to get stamped and checked at 3 offices on the Chadian side and only at immigration on the Cameroon side. The whole process took about an hour.
The city of Kousseri is on the Cameroon side (many consider it to be a de facto suburb of N'Djamena) and I went immediately to the bus station and caught a bus south to Mora. It took 5 hrs on a paved but very pot-holed road. It is considered to be the worst road in Cameroon (but we know that the real worst is the Mamfe road from Nigeria and we have the photos to prove it!) but if that is the worst to come then I am laughing. I've been on much worse and having a bus driving very tilted half on and half off the road to avoid the holes is nothing new. Not that I'm a fan of 5 people across on benches meant for 3 ½...
Nevertheless I made it to Mora in good time and good spirits to meet my first couchsurfing host, Liz, who is a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). Mora is a small town and an administrative centre in the extreme north province of Cameroon. It was a German town during the colonization and there were supposedly some ruins and a graveyard but I never got to them. It felt so different and much nicer than being in Chad. The landscape is slightly greener though just as dusty and things are still made of mud brick. The people are still mostly Muslim but the style of clothing is brighter and less covered. The most similar look to the land and people to me I guess would be Mali again. Cameroon is technically biligual (French and English) though the English is way far south from where I am but people definitely do speak more English here than in Chad.
The extreme north of Cameroon is a thin sliver of land so the Nigerian border and Chadian borders are both very close throughout the area and the influence is significant. The gas here is smuggled over from Nigeria as are some other goods. This may be where most of the English language is coming from too... Nomads from Chad will cross through Cameroon from market to market and into Nigeria to sell their cattle. And apparently there is still no night traffic because banditry is still a significant problem in the area as well.
I hung out with Liz, who introduced me to the other volunteers in town, another PCV, Martin, and an English gal, Louise, with the VSO. While all were full of good advice on what to see in Cameroon, Louise quickly started throwing together an itinerary with phone numbers of contacts along the way. Perfect :)
So I spent the night in Mora, had a walking tour of the area the next morning with the girls and jumped on the bus another 1 ½ hrs south to Maroua, the provincial capital, to stay with a Canadian VSO, Gabrielle. She had no idea who I was really but we got along well and she has let me use her place as a base to leave most of my stuff while I use Maroua as a jump off point to smaller places in the area.
After spending the night in Maroua, early the next morning I jumped on a squishy minibus 3hrs east to Pouss. I was in this rushed schedule because this was Pouss' market day which Louise would not allow me to miss. It was actually really cool though I had no idea what I was getting into at the time. I learned later that Pouss is the largest market in its area, and as it is literally right across a small river from Chad, pulls in interesting tribal groups and nomads from Chad and Cameroon. It was a bit funny to think that although I was watching them and thinking how cool the women, as tall as me and with their facial tattoos and big nose rings, looked carrying large calabashes of milk on their heads, people were watching me, the only white guy around in my funny clothes and carrying a bag on my back.... Not that other foreigners don't come, there just weren't any there that day. There is a volunteer in the village that wasn't around that day. The cattle that they trade are the ones with humps and massive horns. I know I've seen them before but can't remember where...
Unfortunately it wasn't really the kind of environment where you could really freely go up and take pictures of people's faces (or at least I'm not that kind of person and I got yelled at trying to take a pic of a cow) so i don't think I have anything that clearly shows the tattoos.
In Pouss there are also some traditional mud homes that are very large, hollow, bee-hive or almost lotus-flower shaped. As it gets up to 50C in the summer here they are wonderfully cool inside and it's unfortunate that the people have decided to live in concrete ovens or outdoors now instead. I had been told to wander around and try to find them and while I wandered through the village away from the market I met a guy who could speak English and was friends with the volunteers I knew and he decided to drive me to see these homes (which I wouldn't've found otherwise) and then take me to his home for lunch before sending me back to the market. :) Like Mora, Pouss also has a sultan, though the last one recently died and they're have having trouble figuring out who's next. People here have the choice of deciding matters by traditional law (determined by the sultan) or by Cameroonian law.
I'd been told to start thinking about leaving Pouss at 2pm to be sure of catching a ride back 12km to
Maga where I was to stay with another VSO volunteer, Odette. There were a number of trucks leaving the market so I went on the most beat up wreck ever. It looked like someone had put wheels on a rusted out shell of a pickup that we see all over the place. It had no windshield and I had to hold the passenger door closed. The cabin was totally gutted inside, you could see through the floor and the engine was steaming the whole way. We had goats and women in the back, guys hanging onto the side, and ducks tied to the roof (which kept poking their heads in and flapping their wings in through the “windshield” until the driver got fed up with being smacked and had them moved). It was the structurally worst vehicle I've ever ridden in and it actually made it to Maga. Awesome.
Odette was also awesome. A tiny older lady, she'd spent 2 years in Pouss, went home to Quebec for 1 ½ years and decided to return to Maga. She knows so much about what is going on in the area that it was great to just sit back and become informed. She's also travelled quite a bit around the world as well so it was nice to chat a little about everything in the evening after our walking tour of everything Maga.
Lake Maga, which has hippos and a thriving fish industry, is totally artificial and like the town itself, was created from nothing back in the 80's. The project seems to have worked out quite well as it has stabilized the drought/flood cycles of the area better, has created a fish industry (a Japanese/Cameroonian fish farming and freezing area opened up last Nov) that supplies the region (including N'Djamena), and also allows the area to be the rice growing centre of northern Cameroon. It's weird to see rice not growing in terraces. Millet seems to be the main staple otherwise.
After a night on Odette's floor I went back to Maroua to find Louise sick at Gabrielle's (she'd come down for work but couldn't do it in the end) so we both ended up staying over. She thinks it's malaria.
It seems they've all had malaria and typhoid at least once each.
The next morning I took off for an overnight trip to Rhumsiki. Rhumsiki is the most famous and touristic destination in northern Cameroon. From Maroua I caught a minibus to Mokolo, 1 ½ hrs away. On that minibus I met a Dutch guy working with SIL Cameroon. How weird is that? In Mokolo I had to negotiate a motorbike to take me the 50km further to Rhumsiki. The road to Mokolo is smooth, the road onward was supposed to be a terrible dirt road.
With memories of Abeche still in my head I made sure to really check that I was getting on a good bike. What I should've been doing was checking the sanity of my driver. He was nuts and apparently thought that the road was his own personal race course. The road is terrible, and going in a shared car or van would be slow and hellish I think. With a motorbike you could zip around many of the problems but that didn't mean we needed to do it so fast! I think we were going for the tourist record. It took just over an hour on a road worse than the one to Ouara and was the scariest motorbike ride of my life. There were some very rough rocky sections that you have to crawl over but at other times he'd be up at “crash and die” speed.
The approach is beautiful though as about halfway along you start to see the rock formations that the area is famous for. The volcanic plugs sort of randomly dot the landscape for many km surrounding Rhumsiki. They probably weren't as numerous or concentrated as I'd expected but it was still cool. You can do trekking to the local villages and down into the valley but I just found a place to stay and hung out locally. Being the most touristy place in the north, I was a little surprised to find out I was the only one to arrive in Rhumsiki in the last 2 days. There was nobody but me so I was the main dish for the guide touts that wanted to take me on their little tours of the sites. No thanks. Touristy witchdoctors are not for me. Anyway, I just wanted to relax and stare at the rocks from a nice lookout point, so eventually they got bored of me and went away. You can tell they do get tourists though as there are little craft shops, a few tourist restaurants and the kids ask for gifts, pens, etc. In short, it's well on it's way to being annoying, but since the actually number of visitors is quite low, it's a far cry from overdeveloped or obnoxious. It's just the first time I've had to deal with that this trip.
So instead I sat and stared and got mobbed by some kids walking home from school. In the end 2 of the boys decided they would accompany me to the top of the Rhumsiki hill that overlooks the town. By the time we got to the base of it 2 had become 4 and halfway up that had doubled again. Only the original 4 continued to the very top with me though. They found the route and were really good about protecting me from falling off the edge. My sandals are not the best for climbing up slippery stone slopes. They taught me French, I taught them English, everyone laughed and had a good time. The view was nice from the top but it is harmattan season so the sand is in the air and the haze really blocks a lot of the view. Rhumsiki is also right on the border with Nigeria and I guess during the treks people will technically cross over the line but it's all just open space out here. There is a market on Sundays in Rhumsiki so I guess that's when the tourists show up, otherwise very little was going on in the village.
The next day I had to face another death-defying moto ride back to Mokolo with my same driver (you arrange for when you want them to return to get you) and then back to Maroua. The ride was only awesome because it's over and I survived.
The next day I left Maroua to go 2 hours south to a small town called Guider. From there I got another moto taxi (I'm starting to get really sore from all the bikes!) to Kola Gorge, the local attraction that had also been recommended to me. Kola is kind of bizarre in the sense that you would never suspect it's existence based on the surrounding landscape. From sandy and dry land with a few bouldery hills here and there the gorge manages to suddenly drop into the ground. It's probably only 50ft deep at most and 10ft wide, but made of smooth blue/grey stones. There is a small stream, just deep enough now to get your feet wet) that runs through it and has carved out some very smooth whirlpools sideways into the stone. Really the whole thing was on the dinky side, but challenging and fun for me because we (my moto driver and some locals that wanted to guide/follow me) climbed down to follow the stream and then up and over to another section to check out some “rooms” that had been carved out by the water. Wet, sandy sandals are not good for bouldering, especially as I had to do it all with my big backpack on! Somehow I'm still alive and not a wreck (a trend I hope to continue!). Back at Guider I caught another minibus 1 1/2hrs further south to Garoua for the night.
From Garoua it was 4 1/2hrs farther south to Ngaoundere. You might think that all these bus rides are not very long or far, but I've had to wait an average of 1 ½ hrs for the transport to fill up before it leaves, so it takes quite chunk out of your day just to get even a little way down the road. Ngaoundere is the biggest town so far and is the northern terminus for what is supposed to be a very nice train journey south to Yaounde. I've wandered around town now and find it thoroughly uninteresting actually. It's supposed to be nice because it's on a plateau and so a few degrees cooler, and the surrounding countryside is looking a lot more savannah than sahel with more shrubby vegetation and dirt than sand.
I will not be taking the train out of here unfortunately. I will instead make my way south and east by road along the CAR border and hope to cross over briefly sometime in the next few days.
I've recently been eating quite a few avocado sandwiches as an avocado is 20 cents and a baguette the same. Yum! The grilled meat on the street in the evenings is also great. I'm still very, very dehydrated though :(

Kola Gorge


My Rhumsiki guides

Overlooking Rhumsiki

The vehicle that should not be, at Pouss market

Traditional architecture of Pouss

Pouss market

Pouss market

Pouss market

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


So what better way for a world traveler to start a new year than on a new continent?

Oh, sorry, let me start with, this is Savannah making a short interruption in Ammon’s wonderful stories. I haven’t written in so long and thought I’d share our (Kees + SV) Surinam trip...I feel slightly guilty having not written more because I have done lots of travelling since the end of the big family trip. I’ve been lucky enough, living so central, to visit an additional 20 or so European countries, Turkey and Jamaica as well as an exceptional road trip in Canada after Sky’s Las Vegas wedding.

As we are both what you could consider world travellers, or world citizens, depending on which you prefer, we have put Surinam on the top of our lists. I must admit, truly and genuinely, that I did find myself slightly unsettled with this quick conclusion. We went on what Id’ call a paradise tour of Suriname which strangely enough was the reason for the feeling. Now, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely enjoyed every second of being pampering and spoiled, but mentally there was something wrong. “Betrayal” and “guilt” were filling me. Yes, that is exactly it! I realized.

Is Suriname really as great as it seems or is it only the comforts of fancy hotels, a/c and getting taken care of like drooling babies that made it so nice? Would I have thought differently about countries such as Egypt if I’d done it in this same fashion? Am I truly getting the real feel for Surinam? And most of all, Am I cheating and not really here at all? But all I could do was observe and take note of the things I saw and experienced. And what I saw and experienced was wonderful!

We found ourselves on a ten hour journey crossing the Atlantic to Suriname, a first for both of us. The humidity swallowed us the second we stepped out of the airplane and climbed down to the pavement, the sun setting behind us.

One of those guys was waiting, holding up a sign, the kind that I would have thought a hundred times before would never have MY name on it. But there it was, “Ms. Watkins and Mr. Kleef” being held up right outside of arrivals waiting for me! That’s how it all started.

We had already pre-booked everything at an agency at home choosing whichever tour we pleased. I have to admit it was lucky we had because we were actually more clueless than any man has the right to be. We literally stepped on the plane in Amsterdam with no thought of what to expect which is perhaps what made my packing job so difficult the night before. The only thing we had to worry about was being on time, which for us (living part time “in the clouds”) is more of a challenge than the average person/couple. Perhaps we both never truly overcame “African time”... but we did catch our plane, and the next one, and the next and the next and the next and even the one after that, and all of the tours in between! That in itself made it more than a success.

The luggage was rolled (yes ROLLED, not carried) in to Best Western the first of four hotels we’d visit in the capital. We were shown to our very luxurious room where Kees promptly realized he’d forgotten the battery charger for the camera... “I told you the only important things were passport, money and camera!” “I didn’t forget it. I gave it to you.” “no you didn’t” “yes I did” “why would you give it to me instead of just packing it?” so, just barely escaping an argument, we went hand in hand to explore the streets of Paramaribo by night. Late New Years fireworks burst into the air, as if to welcome us to South America, our fifth continent together.

The next morning, bright and early we were picked up and driven to a little domestic airport. We were escorted past the entryway overcrowded with shouting locals and taxis, through the first waiting room and into the isolated air conditioned room where we could sit peacefully away from any chaos. I couldn’t believe it was me getting “protected from the outside world”. I couldn’t decide if I was pleased, embarrassed or guilty. This would be one of many times I’d think; this is totally cheating, right? But I didn’t need to ask, I knew.

I was neither surprised nor comforted by the 20 passenger twin otter plane we were taking into the jungle. Having just barely survived the last, I convinced myself that the domestic flights yet to come were less scary because at 9,500 ft you don’t need cabin pressure, one less switch to forget (one of my many fears involving flying).

I had to force myself to watch as we took off. Knowing the landing wasn’t going to be an improvement only made my heart pound and my stomach was full of hopping grasshoppers. The capital city all short and spread out disappeared within minutes and there was nothing below but dense green and meandering chocolate rivers for the next solid hour. Even during our short decent there was nothing, nothing, nothing but a tangle of green. As we came lower and lower I began to see the details of vines and leaves and branches but at the very last split second a tiny piece of grass gave us mercy and we arrived safely in Palumeu. This was Kees’ choice for the Amerindian village located in the tropical rainforest a short walk from our resort which consisted of a straw covered open hut with a small bar, few wooden tables, chairs and hammocks, and then about five wooden guest cabins overlooking the river. All in all I’d say there were 30 people on the resort including staff. It was like the jungle version of our family’s Maldives trip. It had a very relaxed, trusting atmosphere where even the doors of the cabins had no locks.

They provided us with as much comfort as was possible and considering how “out in the middle of nowhere” it was, I was impressed by the luxury of running water and electricity (although there were no plugs in the rooms and we had to charge batteries in the main hut...oh wait, we didn’t have a battery to charge...). Had I been under Ammon’s rule, we’d have had to walk one week through the jungle sleeping under logs, building fires and making gourmet meal out of worms and monkey brains before getting there in the first place.

The water in the rooms came straight from the river. Some might think that showering with murky brown water (you’d never realize unless you looked at it pooling around your feet) wouldn’t be considered getting proper clean, but in comparison to the wetwipe showers I’d be getting on Ammon’s straggly shoestrings I was more than grateful. The icy cold was a familiar feeling that brought me back to the old life and I can say I made do with a lot less “eeeh aahhh arooooohaa” screaming than Kees.

Our guide, Nootje, (The best I can do phonetically for that name is note-cha) was very friendly and quite a character. Every night he would sit our group of 19 down and explain what the following day would consist of along with a list of what to bring/wear. Everyday breakfast was at 7:30, lunch around 1:00, dinner at 7:00 pm and pretty much everything in between was booked with jungle walks, boat tours and swimming. This holiday was less relaxing than my usual life at home and it was the first time in years I have been on a schedule and it felt great...why do I always feel I’m living backwards?

Swimming with piranhas was something I was able to tick off my bucket list but it was much more anticlimactic than I’d expected, probably because I didn’t have to work up the courage to get in the water (no more than the usual needed to swim with fish)...I didn’t even know I was swimming with piranhas until they pulled one in on a hook and line and I realized it wasn’t by coincidence when they pulled a new one in on every fourth cast. I swam and I survived, so I knew I’d swim and I’d survive again. But we got our fill (literally) swimming, fishing and eating them.

Kees was underwhelmed by the piranhas because he thinks there are just aggressive kinds (implying these were the non-aggressive kind) and even then it’s very unlikely they’d eat you. I think they are dangerous and if they decide to eat you, you’re hooped because they have honker sharp teeth and swim in schools and from the size they were pulling out of the river...I would not want to go in with a wound, as the locals did warn they would be attracted to blood. Eeps! Not a good place to miscalculate your time of the month! They did explain to us, after much questioning from Kees, that the river rises and then when it lowers again they can get stuck in shallow pools where there is no access to food and begin to starve, in that case, yes the horror movies would most likely become a reality.

I loved walking back to our room at night when all the big toads came out, sitting underneath the dimly lit torches along the dirt path. I really couldn’t keep my hands off all the little creatures we found, frogs, crabs, fish, a dead bird and I think Kees was relieved we didn’t find the anaconda otherwise I’d have tried to pick that up too.

Our rooms had such dim lighting that it forced us to sleep early. Every morning our alarm went at 5:30am, and we’d snooze for an hour.

The beaches were so beautiful with the most fine, smooth sand with no rocks or twigs or growth in the river. Nootje, our friendly guide, was very informative and talked about the plants and animals. One of the most fascinating parts was the medicine tour where we discovered all kinds of hidden treasures mother earth has to offer.

Vines, out of the hundreds I don’t know how you’d tell which is which, had many more uses than I ever thought. One was the equivalent of garlic in smell and medicinal purposes. He cut off a piece and it smelled so strong, spicy with a real bite but tasted herbier and better than garlic. Another smelled like almond, a leaf like anise, if you just closed your eyes you would never know the differences. Certain leaves if crushed could be used for purple dye, a particular red bark could be crushed to powder to heal wounds. Another bark could be pealed into perfect strips for bandaids or smoking papers. Another was a very bitter, bitter, BITTER tree that if used can prevent and even cure malaria!

I was more than taken aback when Nootje explained that since the Amerindian villages were converted to Christianity, the church has forbidden the people from using these wonderful gifts god has given us.

Even more surprised was I when he said the medicinal companies make drugs that sometimes make you sick with all the fake chemicals but then they just change the name, dye it another color and split the dose in half, making them twice as much profit. You cannot patent these natural herbs and therefore cannot make as much money. Okay, sounds like a conspiracy coming up but I don’t want to get sidetracked. Instead, I will tell you that again we thought it was no big deal going into a malaria zone for such a short time without prevention...until we learned that everyone else was taking some...oops! I was almost cutting out a chunk of bark for myself. Hopefully neither of us gets sick and dies.

The most fascinating thing for me was all of the different kinds of mushrooms. There were hardly any bugs or flies bothering us, as we’d expected and I wondered if the tour included paying them off. How did they know we were on a GGT?

The nights were filled with rustling of bats in our roof, frogs croaking, crickets singing and big rats creeping out of the walls to investigate our luggage. One night Kees woke me to ask “Do you hear them?! Do you hear the rats?” obviously he was struggling to sleep through their antics and I didn’t appreciate the little gifts they left behind in the morning. Day broke with another cacophony of parrots, cicadas, the occasional howler monkey and other squawking birds. I couldn’t decide if the noises were soothing or annoying, especially when trying to sleep.

With five days ahead of us we used the camera very sparingly but still managed to get away with lots of beautiful pictures, which wasn’t hard in a place as beautiful and peaceful as Palumeu.

The flight out of there was the worst of all six, for whatever reason (possibly the whole table talking about planes and skydiving and crashes at lunch) and I just broke down and cried like a pathetic baby. Luckily I have a big, strong, most loving man who just tucked me under his arm and kept me safe the whole way. And he had the sense not to laugh at me, as he would have in most other cases.

So this leads me to one of my main questions...does this trip count for a line? Yes, flying doesn’t count, I know, but in my defence, didn’t I earn it by facing one of my biggest fears and being so brave? I mean, I would have much preferred to have driven.

Picked up and dropped off at the Krasnapolsky Hotel which was so unbelievably glossy and we got escorted up the elevator to our room and treated like some kind of important people. After repacking stinky, moldy, sour clothes for fresh ones (we were only allowed 7kg each on the airplanes so had to leave one of our suitcases in the capital) we went out to buy a new camera and sunscreen. We both managed to get fried the first day and made a really cute little lobster couple but luckily Pam, an American visiting with her parents and Surinam husband, rescued us with her 40spf sunscreen.

Paramaribo, surprisingly, was a really great city. I, again, was struggling to decide if it was the style in which we were travelling (or should I say holidaying) that gave me the good feeling or was it truly as nice as it seemed. But I could not deny the local people were exceptionally friendly and helpful. The women were all so giggly and sweet. I thought it was a really interesting city because it is made up of many cultures. Surinam is one of few Dutch speaking countries, which was very strange for Kees who found it confusing and even difficult to speak his mother tongue and have them understand. For me, nothing in that department changed, I still had to try and understand the Dutch or tell them “sorry, ik spreek engels” or “mijn nederlands niet zo goed is!” but surprisingly, despite what Kees may tell you, I think I’m picking it up pretty well.

Hindustanen 37%, 19th century contract workers who immigrated as well as the 15% Javanese (Indonesian background) and Surinamese Creoles 31% (West African origins) who were mainly brought over as slaves.

Slave forts could be seen on a short walk along the coast but we didn’t have time to stop and look. I was just researching some stuff and found out that “In 1788, slaves numbered fifty thousand out of a total population of fifty-five thousand, yet there were not many slave rebellions” crazy!!

What I loved most was how they were still expressing those cultures. The Hindis have kept their bindhis, nose rings, gold bands and jewellery. The Surinamese Creoles often had long dreadlocks and huge, huge round melon butts. The Asian group was so pale and soft.

It was fun to spot all of the different religious buildings (Hindu temples, Christian churches, Islamic Mosques etc), and was a nice way of refreshing both our memories.

We were not subjected to any staring but Kees was hit on more than me for a change. I found myself being used as a human shield against the girls licking their lips and wiggling their bottoms at him, lol. A very relaxed, easy going place with what looked like really good shopping. The houses were mostly made of wood which Kees always loves to see in comparison to the brick homes in Holland. But I found it interesting that there were so many decrepit wood houses with ruffled tin fences, rusted and falling apart in comparison to the big mansions.

It was a relief to feel comfortable wearing shorts or little dresses. There were no restrictions and anyone could wear what they wanted. There are so many hot tropical countries that are conservative which no offense, kind of ruin the privilege of living in a warm location.

Our flight to Kabalebo which is an hour South West, was taken in a tiny, 12 passenger Caravan (Canadian built which made me feel a bit better). My whining over the one propeller on the nose instead of two under the wings, had Kees telling me that the Caravan was more stable and has a bigger engine. I would have thought he was lying to comfort me had the pilot not confirmed it. With my head squeezed in his armpit I didn’t want to hear or feel or know anything and especially didn’t want to watch as we approached big black clouds.

As soon as we arrived at the resort, hidden amongst the dense jungle, we learned that the guide had the exact same camera as our first and to our dismay realized we’d left that camera in the suitcase in Paramaribo. DOH! But we were grateful to have one at all, even if it was poorer quality.

We were welcomed with a little note on our bed “Watkins S. And Kleef C.” Kabalebo was much more set up than Palumeu with better lighting, hot water, a swimming pool etc. but was less atmospheric and we found ourselves quickly missing Nootje and his expertise.

One of the coolest things was an airplane overgrown and being eaten by the trees that had to make a crash landing in the 1950’s/ 1960’s. It was straight out of an Indiana Jones movie or a set on Universal Studios and was just a few steps into the jungle from our room.

There, between dugout canoe rides on the river, nature walks and a 8 hr. hike to the top of Misty Mountain we found a few caimans, one giant hamster thing called capybara, possum, many beautiful big macaw parrots, toucans, frogs, vivid green and blue lizards, more mushrooms J and freshly caught piranhas for dinner.

I got my first ever tick, and was pleased to find one on my pillow, along with a giant mosquito...and wondered who was more likely to kill me.

On one night drive with the golf cart on the grass runway we spotted one of many tarantula holes. Tarantulas, from what I know, live their whole lives on a very small perimeter and only come out at night to hunt, but again, they don’t go far. So that is another Hollywood monster that doesn’t seem so threatening after all. As soon as we drove up it ran back in its hole. Kees promptly set up his camera and flashlight next to it and we drove off again in hopes of catching the ugly hairy creature on film. We were very satisfied with the results!

On the way back to the Paramaribo Kees was our co-pilot and got some great footage out the front windshield. After a quick sleep we were on the road in a rented car driving 3-4 hrs west to Nieuwe Nickerie with only the occasional “Kees! You’re on the wrong side of the road!” We also were persistent on finding off roading roads, which only lead us to an expensive car washing fee at the end of the trip. Having driven all the way west we came within 20 minutes of Guyana’s border and were on our way to the ferry crossing when some locals informed us that the last one had already left. Shucks! With our flight leaving to Amsterdam the following day, we decided that was one appointment we better not take risk. We stayed the night in Nickerie and went on another motorized dugout canoe to Bigipan and saw vivid flocks of red ibises and had our agent sort us a meal with caiman. Having both tried alligator...maybe it was crocodile... we were surprised at how very different caiman tasted. In contrast to the fatty, fishy taste of crocodile this was exactly how they say, “water chicken”/ “water kip”. I’m still in question whether it was really caiman or if they just gave us some giant bush rat to shut us up. We drove back to Paramaribo and stayed in a very nice hotel, had a very fancy last dinner before packing up and leaving the next day.

I forgot to mention we somehow fit in going to the zoo in all that. Wild monkeys climbing on the bars of caged monkeys and funnily enough I saw my very first wild sloth hanging above in a tree.

We will definitely be making another trip to Surinam someday, probably sooner than later :)


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Durand Farm

I need to back up a bit and mention a trip to the Durand farm that we did the day before we left for Abeche. Another one of ENVODEV's projects was for us to get in contact with the Durand family and get a tour of their farm because James will be making a website (with video clips) for them. We were supposed to have met them sooner in our trip but had had difficulties getting in contact with them. The Durands are a couple, Sarah from Sweden and David who is half Chadian, half French that have a farm outside of Farcha (a town on the edge of N'Djamena). This farm produces some of the local cheese that is used in the nicer local restaurants in the capital and for sale locally.

So we met Sarah at their family home and she drove us out to the farm. We spent the next couple hours interviewing first Sarah and then David as they showed us their operations and talked about their future plans, with James getting the tour and doing all the talking, and me chasing them around with the video camera. They make cheese from both cows and goats and we were able to poke around and even climb up the water tower for an overview. Their farms is a little green oasis in the middle of a sea of sand. They must be the only people for miles that are actually planting trees..

As further proof that it's a really small community out here in Chad. The Durands also have some horses which others use for riding lessons so a lot of the families know of them and go out there. In fact we learned that one of Dominique's daughters broke her arm falling from one of the horses the day before. This actually affected our plans as we were supposed to be going to Moussoro with Dominique and Sam on our next trip and in the end the trip was shortened by a day and Sam had gone on ahead of us as mentioned in the last blog.

Back to the Durands. It was very inspiring talking to them and hearing about their attitudes toward the situation in the country. David was very open about his criticism of development in the area. His opinion was that the government and NGO's take too much time giving lip service to projects or analyzing things with reports requiring lengthy proposals and not doing anything in time. Meanwhile he's built over a dozen water wells and pumps for the villages surrounding his farm. He took us out to see a few of them, and for those of you that saw the picture of the kids, that was at one of his pumps that he was showing us. His opinion is that it is quite simple, get the money (it's about 1000 euros or so for a well, which he takes from either his own farm profits or independent donations from Swedish people), hire a local company and voila, you have a well and people are happy. No need to wait around for 6 months thinking about it.... Thus he does all of his work on his own and no longer even tries to collaborate with the other groups.

He also allows some of his employees to come and farm cucumbers on some of his unused land, and he showed us the foundations he's starting to lay for what will eventually be a small hospital just outside his farm for the local community. He also claims to be trying to improve the genetic stock of the cow and goat strains in the local community as well. His animals are enhanced through crossbreeding (via artificial insemination with European animals) to provide more meat and milk. Apparently a goat in Europe can produce 5L of milk. In Chad it takes 3 goats to make 1L. By lending his studs (for free) to villages in the area, he's improved the goats up to 1L milk/goat. Of course they can't ever get up to the European levels or simply replace all the animals because they need the Chadian toughness to survive the much harsher climate here.

As you can imagine he is a very popular and respected figure in the area and although there may come a day where someone discovers that something was done improperly or maybe they shouldn't've acted quite so quickly in a project, I think what Chad (and all of the developing world really) needs is more people making a difference like the Durands.

When we got back from Moussoro we met up with David again and got some more footage of the actual cheese making process which they are still doing at their family compound and not at the farm. We got a quick half hour tour and ran away again.

And thus we come to the end of our time here in Chad. Did we accomplish all we wanted? No. Did we accomplish something? Yes. Will it have an impact and help people? Hopefully. James has to get back to classes which start as soon as he gets back to Texas. He will eventually put together some videos of what all we've done here and I'm looking to see how it'll turn out. I am leaving now for Cameroon to continue travelling on my own. I'm expecting the conditions to get much rougher for me from here on out without the language help or the nice compound to be based out of.

My bag is a lot heavier now too after picking up a few items. James is ditching all his stuff and I'm collecting blankets....


Friday, January 13, 2012


Just got back from our trip to Moussoro. It was very different from the trip to Abeche and had clearer objectives this time. I mentioned the internet cafe project previously and how James ended up deciding to collaborate with a different group of missionaries (not involved with SIL) Sam and Dominique. Sam is a young American guy and Dominique the French-Swiss boss and head of their group. They have a project creating a computer training centre in Moussoro in support of a centre with additional ambitions just being set up there by a local group that they had previously met. Sam would be conducting the classes and staying in Moussoro for the duration while Dominique was just going to be a part of the set up, social network and check on additional projects he's involved with in the area. James donated his solar panel, laptops and other equipment to Dominique and we were invited to come to witness it's use and film what was going on. Dominique had other laptops and things already but the additional support is always welcome. They drive up the equipment, charge the laptops with the solar panel during the day, conduct the classes in the late afternoon and a couple weeks later when the course is finished, bring it all back.

Sam had gone up the day before so we met up with Dominique on Tuesday morning to drive up to Moussoro in his 25 year old Landcruiser. Isabel, a French friend of Dominique's joined us and we were

fully loaded with all the equipment as well. Moussoro is almost 300km northeast of N'Djamena. The first half of the road is paved but the last 150km is just sand tracks. It felt much drier and sandier than outside of Abeche and just as uninhabited. There were villages of course, and plenty of camels and donkeys to be seen, but not a lot of traffic or real development yet. 6 hours later we arrived in Moussoro without incident and met up with Sam, dropped off the equipment and went to visit and stay in a different compound with some of Dominique's friends.

Up until now we've been staying in compounds run by westerners and haven't really experienced the hospitality and hardship of the “local life”. Now we were getting it. No electricity, stinky hole in the ground for a toilet, water from containers filled up....somewhere, and lots of really really sweet tea offered all the time. Nothing new for me, but I was wondering if we were going to experience that at some point. One of the more interesting things about it all is that Moussoro is a very Muslim town and we came with very Christian missionaries doing developmental work, working and staying with Muslims. I hadn't had the impression before that they mixed all that much. But maybe that's the way Dominique does things. We've never seen him wearing anything other than the local Gelabiyah and they insisted that we buy and wear the same for the trip. This of course made us also look like the Muslim populace and make it easier to fit in I guess. The weird thing for all that is that the guys at SIL seem to not work with Muslims as much but all speak Chadian Arabic (which is definitely more of a Muslim language) and Dominique and Sam speak none at all, despite being in very Muslim communities. James was quite popular in Moussoro with his ability to speak Arabic to everyone.

Moussoro itself is a town of 50,000 or so I think Dominique said. There are no paved roads leading up to it for 150 km so of course all the streets in town are also very sandy and uneven. It does seem to be built in a more or less grid pattern but with the uneven streets of sand and garbage, the few trees and bushes with old shredded plastic bags in them, the few beat up 4WDs and motorcycles, and mud walls with fewer doors and shops appearing from them, the place seems like the perfect set for a post-apocalyptic western movie. January and February are the months of sandstorms too so when we started to get that and the visibility drops to a block or two, the shrouded figures walking donkeys up the street just add to the effect. I was surprised that one of the streets has street lights and I suspect future development will occur quickly and probably not too far off in the future.

But of course we were on a schedule and program dictated by the course and its set up and the social networking involved. I was put to work filming the meetings I couldn't understand, the set up, and the class itself. It was the official opening of the “centre” when we started the class. The area used being a small open area and building with 2 small rooms walled off from similar areas beside. The was a table and borrowed chairs and a blackboard on a stand. Not much else. There were 7 laptops in total, with 2 students to each computer. The students were adults, most of whom would have a job with the government or something and so possibly access to a computer that they had no idea how to use. This was the level 2 course, so they are being introduced to Microsoft Word and Excel. I suppose for most of us now it seems strange that you can still find people that don't know how to even open programs or turn off the computer but this is the level of understanding out here. It's also interesting that technology has made such inroads into communities now that these people have cell phones and are taking courses on laptops, but have no electricity in their homes and their kids run around without shoes...

Moussoro is also known for it's weekly camel market so on Thursday morning before leaving town we had a quick run around the market. It's big, as the nomads come in to trade livestock on an open field near the market. We were there before it was fully underway but there were already large groups of people and animals standing around. Our drive back was through a bit of a sandstorm which at time brought the visibility down to zero, but generally gave the effect of skiing between the trees in a heavy fog. Exciting but my lungs are looking forward to leaving Chad and hopefully finding somewhere less dusty to hang out. James and I have been on some strong anti-histamines for a while now to stop our allergies to all this dust. Wheezing and coughing all the time are no fun and I don't know how these people deal with it all their lives.


Sunday, January 08, 2012

Abeche and Ouara

We left for Abeche on an early morning flight with the WFP. It took 1 ½ hrs to fly 900km due east in our little 50-seater plane. I don't know why but I had sort of assumed that since we were on a UN/NGO-only flight that it would be full of important looking westerners but it turns out almost all of the 40 passengers except for us and 2 or 3 others, were Chadian.

Abeche is not a very big town, (maybe 100,000 people) but it's the capital of the eastern region and is located only 175km from the border with Darfur, Sudan. As such, it is the main staging point for all the operations in eastern Chad that have to deal with the Darfur refugees and internally displaced people from previous Chadian conflicts or famines in the area. I kind of liked the town actually. It was relatively quiet, the main streets were paved and lighted and somehow smaller places feel cleaner, even though they aren't actually clean. It's even hotter and drier than N'Djamena though so I'm very happy we are here in Chad in “winter”, even if it is 30C during the day.

The Abeche airport must be Chadian run but I think the WFP has as much power there as they want. I think all the flights in and out of there are run by UN or NGO airlines, like WFP and when we were being questioned about our presence on arrival by the police, having a WFP contact at the airport seemed to satisfy them pretty well. We ended up staying in the WFP guest compound though there are now 2 hotels in town as well. Not that they have any guests, Abeche is still very much not on the tourist map.

All the transport in Abeche is motorbikes, tuk-tuks or trucks. There are no cars at all. Tuktuks are the taxis. The market was bigger than I thought it would be, and we had to wander around in it for a while looking for someone to change money as none of the banks in Abeche will change USD. They only change Euros. I think we freaked a lot of people out by just walking around on the streets. The WFP kept asking if we had a driver and we did get a lot of stares. Honestly, it didn't have any bad vibes being on the street and there was no strong police presence or hassle either. So we just did our thing.

The first day we ran around Abeche getting oriented mostly. Abeche also has a much more Muslim feel to it, with more obvious mosques and azans, and no obvious churches.

Our primary goal for our trip to Abeche was to actually get there and come back in one piece. In that goal we were successful. Our secondary goal was to visit a nearby refugee camp or 2. In that goal we were unsuccessful. As it turned out, we had gotten flights to Abeche with WFP but we simply didn't have enough time or enough of a game-plan originally to actually arrange any further flights with them to the camps. The nearest camp, Farchana, is a further 120km to the east. We had a little info on it, but with it being only a 3 day trip to Abeche for us, and no reliable transport in and out of Farchana, it was looking like a bit of a risk to try and get there, especially as we had no specific reasons to go to that particular camp. It wasn't James' first choice of camp to visit and he hadn't been able to get his meeting with the head of OCHA prior to our trip to discuss some of the issues we could address.

Nevertheless, we had the intention of attempting getting there on the 2nd day, but when James failed to wake up early (because he'd completely knocked himself out the night before with strong anti-histamines) our options were shot.

As a backup plan, to salvage our visit, we recalled Robin telling us about the ruins of a sultan's palace somewhere outside Abeche during our Christmas dinner and resolved to at least go see it on day 2. After asking around, we determined that the ruins were called Ouara (Wara) and were to the north, somewhere between 10 and 45km from Abeche but people had heard of it. Good enough for us.

We talked to a couple of guys at a moto taxi stand and agreed a price, selecting an older Bedouin driver, Osman, to take James in the lead because he had actually been there once, many years ago. Osman figured it was about 30km away. We left at 1:30pm believing that we could make it back before dark at 6pm. Oh such optimistic and naive people we are!

It was immediately obvious that Osman's bike was not up to the task and he had a flat only 2km out of town. At least he was smart enough to admit that the bike wasn't going to make it so we had to send the other guy back to town to get a replacement. After a while of sitting around we had a 3rd driver show up who lent his bike to Osman so we could continue. The main road heading north is just a dirt road with lots of bumps but not much washboarding fortunately. The landscape is beautiful in a dry wasteland kind of way. Sandy and flat with dried grasses and stunted trees or bushes for the most part. Here and there were small bouldery hills rising up, mostly in isolation. Goatherds tended their flocks of, well, goats and camels and children leading or riding donkeys laden with dried grass stopped to stare as we whizzed by. I wondered how many westerners had crazily travelled these roads on a motorbike in recent times...

There were a few stuffed pickups or beat up 4WD's that passed by going the opposite direction acting as the local public transport to the nearest town, Biltine, some 90km ahead of us. Clusters of mud-brick homes surrounded by a wooden fence and a handful of children were the local versions of villages and we passed several along our route.

It was wonderful, beautiful, freedom to be headed out into the countryside, finally free of the claustrophobia of wandering through the city with it's noises and fumes and crowds.......for about 30km. By then the bumping and jolting were starting to take it's toll. The late afternoon sun was drying us out and shrivelling us up and I'd already eaten a very large lunch of dust and my face was stinging from a few stones kicked up from James' bike in front of me. There was also no sign of any ruins and I was beginning to believe that we would have to travel a full 45km to get there. My driver started grumbling but Osman was a real trooper and determined to find the place and kept asking any people we met where Ouara was. They'd point vaguely to some hills up ahead and we'd continue.

Just after the 40km marker Osman blew another tire.

As we sat in the partial shade of a small tree, watching beetles scurry across the sand I began to doubt our making it back before sunset. It was already late afternoon and we still weren't sure where the ruins were. I was also starting to wonder if the cracks in my lips were starting to bleed. James had forbidden either of us from drinking the water we brought as soon as he realized the drivers didn't have any. We were not going to admit to having any lest we get stranded somewhere and need it for survival. Perhaps a bit extreme, but also perhaps the wiser course of action in such circumstances.

After fixing the tire we head out directly toward the nearest hills, through the grass and fields, asking anyone we came across which way to go. It was all very Mongolian for me at that point. Forward we drove, blazing a new trail or following herder tracks as required. Until we blew another tire....

It's a good thing Osman had picked up a lot of extra tire patches before we left, but that 3rd guy that had given up his bike to us had given us a lemon. Osman had no trouble pulling the inner tube out and patching it up, but it was seriously eating away at our daylight time. I also discovered burrs all over my socks and up the inside back of my pants. Ouch! We were at the base of a hill, and Osman was so convinced that the ruins were just around on the other side, that he refused to turn back and give up when James suggested it in order to give us enough time to find the main road before the sun set.

The ruins were just around the hill. And they were impressive in their isolation. We had very little idea what were seeing at the time, and there isn't even a sign to mark the place, but there are some partially standing building structures and clearly visible remains of numerous walls. We have since found out that Ouara was built in the 16th or 17th centuries and was the capital of Eastern Chad, founded by an Arab sultan grown wealthy on the African slave trade up into the Middle East. In roughly the 1890's the site was abandoned when their wells likely ran dry, and the new capital was moved to Abeche. The French didn't show up into the region for another 20-30 years so when they arrived, Ouara had no importance and it was Abeche that was conquered, destroyed and rebuilt. Ouara has remained in it's slowly decaying state ever since. I guess a lot/most of Ouara was built with mud over brick with the mud gone and a lot of bricks left to see now. The sun was quite low when we got there so we only had 10-15 minutes to really run around and film the site before we had to leave. Our drivers followed us around excitedly, speculating on different areas or acting as guides to James though I suspect little is true and almost all is now the local folklore about the place. The atmosphere of isolation was so incredible and I really wish we could've gotten there a lot sooner so we could've had more time to cover the whole area instead of just poking around the main standing structures. How long has it been since it last saw a visitor other than goatherds? How long will it be before the next visitor arrives? Ouara has been listed on the tentative UNESCO list since 2005 but it's not going to be a tourist attraction any time soon. First Chad is going to need some tourists....

So with a longing look back at the ruins fading away behind us, we left Ouara to the wild foxes that can now call it home and gunned the bikes along new trails over across the countryside, racing the setting sun to at least get back to the main road. James was starting to worry and make plans for spending the night outside, but Osman seemed pretty confident. We stopped to beg water from a village for the drivers (we weren't going to drink that dirty stuff) and finally reached the main road, in full dark (though there is an almost full moon now which was nice) just to have to stop for another flat tire. James and I held up phones to illuminate the tire while it was being patched up and for the first time I noticed what was actually going on. Osman was putting patches on top of patches. Soon there wouldn't actually be a tube left but simply a circular series of patches the size of a tire. He put 7 patches on that 1 stop alone!

Off we go again, finally on the road and hoping that having more solid ground would somehow help. Nope. It did not. We made it less than 1km when we had to stop once again to put another patch on the tire. We still had 40km to go in the dark, and 6 patches left. We weren't going to make it at that rate. My driver wanted to leave Osman behind but we knew Osman was the only competent guy in our group. No way we were leaving him! The solution that we implemented in the end was to put James on my bike and let Osman drive on his own pushing it the whole way on more or less a flat tire. It was rough. My body ached all over and we had a lot more dust for dinner but we did make pretty good time after that. Osman decided not to make any more stops and we got back into Abeche at about 9pm, 3 hours after sunset.

Just inside of Abeche my driver stopped, complained about his suspension being wrecked, blamed us (of course) and took off to go fix it or something and said he'd be back. That was weird. Really weird. The guy was kind of suspicious anyway, and without Osman he would've turned back on the whole trip a long time before we even made it to Ouara so we generally weren't getting good vibes out of him. But nobody I've ever hired as a driver that has been annoyed and inconvenienced all day has ever just driven off when we get almost to the end (we were still on the wrong side of town from our compound) and not collected his money.... Osman was still with us, now pushing his bike as we walked along the dirt street, but Osman didn't even have a phone, and did the guy trust Osman and us enough to not just disappear? We'd convinced ourselves that nefarious plans were possibly underway and so as soon as we got back to a paved road with some traffic, paid Osman enough for both drivers (with a little extra for his efforts) and took off in a tuktuk as fast as we could before the other guy could come back.

What a great adventure but I'm out of shape and was so worn out I couldn't even face the thought of a cold shower to wash off the dust so simply fell into bed dreaming of a massage I would never get.

The next day, upon review of the events of the previous one, James decided it was definitely in our best interest to NOT attempted to get all the way to Farchana and back in a single day as it was nearly 3 times as far and we definitely couldn't afford to miss our flight out of Abeche. He also did not want to risk the video camera and losing all the great footage we got of the day before. We'd only flown over with minimal stuff and had left his computer and backup hard drives in N'Djamena. So in the end we didn't do much with our last day in Abeche, and mostly stayed in our compound or just within the immediate area to get food. We also weren't particularly interested in accidentally meeting up with my driver and getting accused of not paying him or something. James sometimes has a paranoid and low opinion of the general populace I think. He claims he learned it from his time and experiences living in Egypt. I can't argue against that....

Our flight back to N'Djamena was uneventful and we are now preparing for our trip to Moussoro.


Sunday, January 01, 2012

Happy New Year 2012

If I had to be honest I'd have to admit to being on a bit of a lull here post-Christmas. We have set plans now for the internet project at the end of our time in Chad so we're not doing anything more with it at the moment. James had a few other smaller projects he wanted to do but with the complications we've had with getting a driver and basically pissing off every local contact that we've used so quickly, they've been put on the back-burner as well until a new way of doing them comes to us. We also can't be seen as totally incompetent by the missionaries and other aid groups here so we can't keep asking them for help either.

We've also had the ongoing idea of getting out to the east of the country. Originally it looked like a very doable idea, based on the info James had when he was here in 2008. Then it got more complicated and looked impossible. Now it looks like we are going for sure.

The story with that is that back in 2008 (and from info he received more recently) James found out that it is possible to fly for free with the World Food Program (WFP) out to Abeche in the east of the country. He almost did it in 2008 and back then it was literally tell them some story and as a white guy you could get on the plane. Hoping it was still the case, we went there early in the trip to find out the schedule, only to learn that now you have to get approval by OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) which oversees and organizes all the major groups here (and around the world). So we talked to OCHA and they said we needed proof of being a registered NGO in Chad and a letter of intent for the east. At that point James had to pull out the ENVODEV card, because they are somehow registered as a small non-profit development organization here. James was recently made a director and wrote himself a letter saying that we had to go to the east to do an assessment of the area for potential future work.

To some extent it is all true. ENVODEV would like to do more in the country and possibly do stuff in the east. I doubt they currently have the ability to act on that but whatever. It's good to get the name out there and be officially on the books. There was a bit of back and forth between James' contacts in ENVODEV overseas, and with paperwork for OCHA, and with organizing some dates, and in the end we have gotten approval. There is still some small mystery about whether or not we need a permit from the police or government to leave the capital, but few people use it anymore and we've told OCHA who've hopefully talked to people and got us cleared. Anyway, we'll see if we get on the plane.

Now James is trying to figure out what we'll do in the east.

The situation there is a lot more unstable than the capital. Eastern Chad borders on Darfur, and although that conflict is over now, there are still lots of refugee camps (and camps for internally displaced Chadians) around the area. Ground transport is possible though long, rough, infrequent and on the risky side. Security is now handled only by the Chadian government as all the foreign military support has left the area. OCHA is letting us go because apparently they are now interested in moving from a focus on aid to a focus on development thus letting us go as a development group. So we'll hopefully get into some camps, see some stuff, talk to some people, represent ENVODEV (which means dressing up and acting official) and not get shot or kidnapped.... We will be there from the 4th to the 7th.

In the meantime we've been mostly hanging out. Went to the only theatre in N'Djamena. It's recently rebuilt and actually very nice inside. For $2 we saw Mission Impossible 4. They must get the reels from France as it was dubbed in French and I understood none of it. Not that you watch that kind of movie for the dialogue anyway... This started a trend of watching movies here off my computer in the evenings as well.

Our cooking has gotten slightly more ambitious. After an initial setback with a few rotten eggs (literally), we've now confidently incorporated them into our diet and gone from eating 1 meal continuously to about 3 varieties.

We've also completely given up on the idea of a driver and now stick to the mototaxis (aka clando? Clandeau? Clandeaux? Clandaud? Clandeot? Clandault? Clandkdjgajeropa? Damn French....) to get anywhere in town. We've only almost been in 2 or 3 accidents on them and seen a crash or 2. Crashes or their aftermath are kind of a daily thing here so you try not to think about it too much.

New Years Eve was nothing exciting here. The city did put up a few extra lights and James and I had dinner at one of the nice restaurants in town, the Carnivore. It used to be a lot seedier apparently or else they'd made it nicer for the night. We couldn't be out late to do anything though as our compound has a curfew of around 10pm. James was in bed before midnight and there was no noticeable change in activity to mark the hour. No fireworks, no extra noise, nothing where we are.
Happy New Year! Lets see where this one takes us.

Ammon Watkins