I’m currently in Kigali, Rwanda. I’ve been here since the 17th and will be here until I’m either issued a visa to go to the DR Congo or until I’m flat out denied. Fingers are crossed for the visa, but I’m trying not to get my hopes up too high because I was already denied once while I was still in Cameroon. That was a low point: silently crying on the steps of the Congolese embassy with my summer plans lying in figurative pieces at my feet. But I already had a flight scheduled to Kigali, so I got on it and here I am. It’s good to be back.
So for the next week I’ll be here learning how to wait. It’s a good way to transition away from being a student (also, what the heck am I supposed to write in the ‘occupation’ space now? ‘Wayward traveler?’ ‘Vagabond?’) So while I sit around (in between chapters of Moby Dick. Did you get that? I’m reading Moby Dick. Does this make me an intellectual?), I’ll try to get this sadly neglected thing up-to-date.
I spent my April research studying apiculture. Yes, bees. No, I am not a biology major. I had a beekeeping apprenticeship that took place for four weeks in the city of Ngaoundere, and one week in the village of Lougga, 75 km outside of Ndere. Some lil things:
Sleeping arrangements in Lougga: mud hut. A beautiful reality because here’s the thing. Mud bricks and grass roofs keep a home pleasantly cool sans air conditioning/a fan that squirts water mist/ running water/ electricity. It’s a smart set up they’ve got going.
Neighbors in Lougga: Most notable was a beautifully ancient woman who knew perfectly well that the only Fulfulde I speak goes something like, “Hello, my name is Gretchen. I have one brother. My parents have two children. Our names are Sue, J.D., Jay and Gretchen. How much does that cost?” Despite this, she wanted to speak to me, so she would send a barrage of the unfamiliar language at me until somebody nearby translated to French. She gifted me a broom on my first day in Lougga.
As for the apprenticeship itself, I learned: how to weave a traditional hive, how to mount said hive in a tree (a big shout out to my childhood for earning me the climbing experience necessary to quickly scale the highest branches and impress my Cameroonian weaving tutor. If only six year old Gretchen could see me now!), how to harvest honey in the wilderness in the dead of night, how to get stung by bees, and how to collect wax from harvested combs.
At the end of that week, I rode back to Ngaoundere in the back of a truck transporting 8 other people, 14 goats, countless chickens, many bags of maize, 1 duck, firewood and some bamboo poles. I spent the majority of the drive sitting up on the metal railings, cool wind and the Adamaoua valleys covering me.
We were stopped at a police checkpoint for 30 minutes as we neared Ngaoundere because the officers claimed that the forest products we were transporting lacked “papers of origin.” There’s no such thing as papers of origin. There IS such a thing as police officers making up papers of origin so that they can get a bribe out of the truck driver. They had guns and we didn’t. Corruption in action.
The final result of the research was 51 pages of “Money, Honey: A Call for Modernity Among Adamawa Apiculteurs.” If you ever decide that you want to read it, I’m flattered, but I’d recommend you quickly rethink your decision. Nevertheless, I’m proud of the thing.
The Adamaoua region has a fascinating culture. Tattooing and scarring of women’s faces was really common. I’m conflicted about it because I think it’s beautiful- especially on smiling, elderly, wrinkled faces- but I see a good number of girls as young as five with simple, scarred lines (inked blue) on their cheeks. I can’t imagine the fear and the pain for those little beans. My 3-year old host niece crieds like French-dubbed “Hannah Montana” has been taken off the air when she’s just getting her hair braided. Someone approaching her face with a razor blade? No.
But I can’t really ever fully understand the practice either. I will never tattoo or scar my face (unless I commit a murder in the Bronx). What looks devastatingly beautiful and cultural embedded in brown skin would make me look like a pasty courtroom sketch artist whose pen has just exploded in one perfectly straight line down her forehead (even I don’t know why that’s the example I chose. Just go with it, please.) Here it’s a rite of passage, something to be proud of in an embrace of culture and tradition. I will continue to find it beautiful, but I will also continue to feel squeamish when I think about babies (by my broad definition) having their faces cut and inked.
Within the first three weeks of living in Ngaoundere, I ate 34 oranges. Yes, I kept a tally in my journal. For those of you who didn’t graduate 5th grade (I imagine that to be this blog’s majority demographic. If you’ve completed higher education aka survived middle school, what are you still doing here?) that adds up to more than 10 oranges a week. After the 3rd week I took a break from street oranges and moved on to street insta-coffee. Street food 4 lyf.
Laundry is starting to wear on me. I’ve hand-washed for four months now. There is perma-dirt in several of my shirts. Unscented, leave-no-trace, backpacking detergent inspires almost zero confidence in cleanliness and is, in my mind, one of the stupidest inventions of all time. The worst of it is my yoga pants. They so badly needed a dryer that when I wore them out* I was regularly having to hoist my waistline back up to where it belonged, attracting even more attention from pedestrians and small children in house windows who already think I look like a freak.
*Yes I, who (despite sporting the joufit twice a week all of fall semester) have snobbishly claimed to be anti-sweatpants-in-public since age 16, wore yoga pants out. This has since been remedied since I left the hopelessly stretched out things in Yaounde. But none of this really matters, and I’ve transitioned from writing about my time in Cameroon to my failed attempts at being fashion saavy. Sorry. Back to it then.
Operation Get to Equatorial Guinea failed. I’ll make this brief. After three and a half months- are you getting me? A QUARTER OF A YEAR- of asking anyone and everyone about this African North Korea, we didn’t get the crucial detail until it was too late. So for all of you who want to someday make it to Equatorial Guinea, know this and only this: the ferry from Limbe (Cameroon) to Malabo (EGA) only leaves twice a week (Tuesdays and Fridays). Cuss.
And finally, Mount Cameroon. On May 6, the day I was supposed to be walking in Hope College’s 2012 commencement ceremony, I was starting up a 13,000+ foot mountain with Margie, Elma, Elma’s mom Annie, one guide and three porters. What follows is the account from my journal. If you don’t want to read it all, I don’t blame you. But it’s here if you find yourself with some free time.
It’s entirely too possible that my fingers will fail me- any minute now- from the exertion of the wimple act of writing. But it’s so worth it; this mountain is like another world.
We started yesterday at 3:30 p.m. having been informed that, for the three day hike, we should expect to spend 6 or 7 hours getting to Hut 2, which meant that part of our journey would be in the dark. We took the challenge. Day 1 held excruciating physical demands, but the hike was scattered with moments that were a complete separation from the pain and apprehension.
One such separation happened fairly early on. When we got above treeline Samuel, our guide, pulled out the ferns he had collected along the way, giving out two per person. He told us about the god of the mountain. The autochtones who live on the mountain make sacrifices here. It used to be albinos (I hope we can believe him when he says it’s not practice anymore) but now a white goat, rooster or sheep is killed. For visitors it’s different. On an indescribably green slope with plantations, cities, gardens and ocean below us, the five of us beat the ferns in time- twice on our thighs, twice on our chests, twice on our heads- with Samuel’s song. When he finished, he yelled “TOO!” and we responded, “HOY!” and threw the branches behind our heads, arms completely outstretched, ethereal in our moment of blessing.
Another separation came at nightfall. Already exhausted with altitude getting to us, the idea of headlamps guiding us up a steep face covered in loose rock was still exciting, but more unwelcome, certainly, than it had been that afternoon. Luckily, thankfully, we were granted a relatively clear night and got to watch an enormous, red, full moon rise over the tiny lights of Douala so far below us.
And oh! the feeling of relief when we did finally make it to Hut 2. I struggled HARD in the last few hundred meters (Annie guessed altitude, Samuel suggested too much water, I say I made the mistake of starting the day dehydrated) and my pride was effortlessly broken in half when Samuel insisted on taking my pack, in addition to his own, for the last 300 meters. I am regularly brought to my knees.
The wind was frigid and I bundled immediately upon arriving at the hut. Despite an undeniable misery in the moment of pain, frustration and cold itself, there was also excitement over the experience and a nostalgia at being so cold you’re shivering.
After an hour and a half or so of insta-sleep, hot spaghetti fixed all physical ailments. I assumed, post-10:30 p.m. meal, that we would immediately put heads to pillows and be out until morning. But no, it was my graduation day and I have wonderful, irreplaceable friends here. Before I was allowed to go to sleep, Margie and Elma informed me that they had each written a speech. That alone was a thousand times more than what I deserved, but no. They, with the help of Emma, had collected ten letters from dear home friends. Margie started by reading Kelly’s aloud as we sat in our sleeping bags protected by our scrap metal Mount Cameroon hut and I cried into my scarf. Marg and Elma took turns reading each letter, all rendered on notebook paper in Margie’s handwriting, and I just sat and listened, laughing or nodding in understanding, gratitude silently pouring out of me.
AND THEN TODAY. Summit time. Woke up with nerves and a little dread: took a Cipro. We were woken at 6:00 and were on the trail by 7:30. The first hour, we have all agreed, was horrible because each of us was lethargic and self-doubting. But after a while, we fell into a rhythm. It was still difficult (for Annie, Elma and me it’s likely taken the title of most physically demanding thing we’ve ever done. Machu Picchu still wins out for Margie) but it was a rhythmic and bearable difficulty. At Annie’s suggestion of __ steps walked = ___ seconds of rest, we found ourselves steadily rising for long lengths of time without a seated break. Though the pattern alternated depending on the incline, an average of 30 steps with 8-10 counts of rest got me through the morning.
Eventually we got into flatter terrain, but that was somehow worse- I don’t know why. The whole paysage looks like Lord of the Rings though, and with the exception of an exhausting amount of wind, the weather could not have been better. We stood over huge, white clouds with puzzle pieces of city poking through, and under a bold, strong sun, nothing but whisps of clouds to contest it.
The summit came out of nowhere. I don’t know how else we expected it to happen. Samuel pointed it out to us as we approached, but as we climbed and fought the horrible wind, we lost our sense of height and the sign just sort of materialized. Even after first seeing it for myself, even after gauging the approximate number of steps it would take me to get there, I still feel like I apparated; I simply found myself sitting against my pack next to this carved piece of wood, no memory of how I got there. We can’t have been at the top more than five minutes. It was impossible not to wonder at the view, at the cloud shadows and shades of green, but the wind was violent and the descent steep on all sides. So we snapped our pictures, hauled the packs back on, and started down. That was noon.
The slopes that followed were wild and a little nervy and the joints. Loose rocks followed us down and hills and savannah and expanse greeted us and them. We tumbled for a while, noting how fun it would be to have a sled in this particular hiccup of world geography (I was thinking that. The rest of the group, all being more hardcore than I am, was probably thinking skis.)
We stopped for lunch around an hour after summitting, happy for a short respite from the wind (hidden behind rocks and trees, but hidden nonetheless.) Every time we sit down now it’s an immense relief. All of us flop to the ground with our packs forming a convenient back rest. On this particular stop, I was informed that a graduation gift had been forgotten as a jar of blueberry preserves emerged from someone’s pack.
They’re good, these people I’m with.
After lunch, things got really hard on the feet. We spent another two or so hours crossing a lava field. It was largely flat, and our cardio loved the break, but it’s just thousands of sharp, black rocks, the lose ones waiting to send our bare hands down onto painful brothers. Ankles were turned, knees locked, palms scraped and it’s sort of a wonder no one broke anything. The treacherous nature of the hike made it impossible to admire the scenery at the same time, but our occasional stops made it clear that, if we were to wander too far in the direction of the sky, we would certainly be staring over the edge of the earth.
Black rock gradually gave way to grass, and we hugged the edge of a soft hill until the path laid us out in a green valley. Our porters were asleep beneath a small group of trees, but les blanches preferred to warm our faces in the sun and discuss baby names for half an hour.
And, for a time, that was the end of the rocks. We enjoyed the luxury of a beaten grass path through the savannah that we had quickly opened into. I led this portion and walked a touch fast in order to, however briefly, feel alone in the vastness. It was at this point that Mount Cameroon began to feel less like one grand mountain and more like a path through a range of many small ones (though this sensation lasted only as long as I could forget the hellish ascent that had completed just hours earlier).
We saw an old, French-founded radio station (presumably to communicate with ships? But I missed that portion of the history lesson) and at that point the ocean began to rise into the sky, our sense of dimension completely thrown off. Malabo looked more like a floating space station at one point than it did an island.
Out of the grassy hills came two black craters, the site of another resting point. Samuel explained that in 1999 the volcano erupted once in April and again in May and that these two craters were part of a series of twelve. (When Mount Cameroon erupts, it is slow-moving, posing very little threat to Limbe and Buea, and even hikers if they happen to be on the mountain at the time.) We walked up to the edge of one crater, which was a little unnerving given that the walk was on loose rock and ash.
Once we were continuing, we rounded the corner past the craters and saw that the sides of the things we had just been looking down into contributed to great dunes of volcanic ash. DUNES ON TOP OF A MOUNTAIN. Black ash dunes. Beautiful. It was like a desert.
And like so much on this mountain, the dunes just stopped, an invisible line marking the switch in environ. They gave way to more scraggly savannah, then that to grass slopes. We could see the perfectly outlined treeline getting closer and closer, and when we reached it, we were at Mann Spring Camp and allowed to collapse. Ten hours of hiking in one day.
Waking up this morning (after a night spent in a claustrophobic two-person tent) was rough but exciting. We set out by 7:00 and had a couple hours more across grassy savannah (also crossing over 1999 lava flow- a path of black rock that abruptly runs through the green here and continues all the way across a road in Limbe) before we entered the rainforest.
The rainforest was a struggle for a while. The trail was extremely overgrown, roots were wet, ants with enormous jaws that don’t unlock once they’ve bitten someone occasionally swarmed the ground at our feet. But we began to distract ourselves by relating the plots of the last two Hunger Games books to Margie [things I should maybe keep to myself] and by the end of it we were walking wider paths without having noticed the switch. Conversation continued as a tool of distraction and at 1:30 we were getting into a taxi, totally in awe of what we’d just done.
such amazing adventures, please keep sharing! thank you gretchen